The progress of implementing the state operational program Health and Welfare for 2000-2006 was yesterday criticized by the European Commission for inadequate absorption of funds, delays in state procurement and staff recruitment, and sluggish bureaucratic procedures. EC officials yesterday warned the Health Ministry over delays in the disbursement of funds destined for investment in the sub-program Mental Health – which forms a large portion of the operational program – in an attempt to exert pressure on the ministry to act. The year 2003 will be definitive – by then, the Health Ministry and the program’s managing authorities will have to have made up for lost time and to have accelerated the pace of implementing the scheduled projects. In Wednesday’s annual meeting in Athens between representatives of the 5th EC Directorate, the Health Ministry and the managing authority of the operational program, Commission officials drew attention to the area of mental health, reminding their interlocutors of a recent letter sent to Health Minister Costas Stefanis by European Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou expressing concern over the severe delays in the disbursement of funds destined for the Mental Health sub-program which aims to discharge patients with chronic mental illnesses from psychiatric institutions and to develop special mental health units in the community. Indeed, Diamantopoulou warned the ministry that if the program does not progress, the Commission will be obliged to review its contributions to the Health and Welfare operational program. Health Ministry officials attributed the delays to two basic factors: a) the time-consuming process of recruiting staff for the new mental health facilities – reportedly made more complex through the involvement of the Economy Ministry, and b) the «restrictive» bureaucratic procedures for prospective applicants who must fulfill demanding provisions (by the Third Community Support Framework and the Greek State) before they can have access to funds. Indeed, Health Ministry General Secretary Haris Sofianos noted that «the prospects for mental health have been woefully restricted,» stressing that the barriers to the implementation of projects must be removed by the end of 2003. Sofianos proposed the submission of an action to the EC’s 5th Directorate by the end of January 2003, listing the priorities in the area of mental health for that year alongside a specific timetable for the realization of the projects. The plan would be reviewed every three months by ministry and Commission officials. The proposal appeared to satisfy Commission officials who said the plan could act as a catalyst for the realization of the projects. Concluding talks on the matter of mental health, all agreed «we must see concrete results in 2003.» Staffing the program The representatives of the 5th EC Directorate also discussed the staffing of the managing authority of the Health and Welfare operational program. The authority currently comprises 21 of the 27 officials it says it needs, having operated with just 10 staff members until April this year – at least eight months after it was set up. Commission officials stressed that the authority needs more staff if the operational program it oversees is to attain the goals it has set out for 2003-2004. As regards another sub-program of the operational program – Health – Health Ministry officials attributed delays to time-consuming procedures in state procurements from the Development Ministry, admitting that the planned establishment of supportive infrastructure has also been delayed. They added that they were unable to make accurate forecasts and evaluations regarding the progress of the operational program precisely because of delays in recruitment and procurement. The operational program is expected to comprise 800 projects when fully implemented. In the first 16 months since the launch of the program, more than 200 projects have been registered – most of them over the last eight months. Just 2.5 percent of the budget for the program (12 million euros from a total of 523.3 million euros) has been invested to date, but investment is due to increase significantly from August 2003. 523.3-mln-euro ‘package’ with five key focal points The operational program Health and Welfare 2000-2006 was approved by the European Commission on April 4, 2001 and was implemented during the second half of last year. The total budget for the program is 523.3 million euros. The EC is contributing 384.9 million euros to the program – 220.3 million from the European Commission budget and 164.7 from the European Fund for Regional Development. The program focuses on three key areas: Health, Mental Health and Welfare. A fourth focus is on staffing for the three key areas; and a fifth on technical support for the implementation of the projects. The allocation of the budget across the five focal points is as follows: Health 42.4 percent (217.6 million euros); Mental Health 42.6 percent (218.6 million); Welfare 5 percent (25.6 million); staffing 8 percent (41 million); and technical support 2 percent (10.26 million).