Spending cuts take toll on welfare programs

Evanthia Plakoura’s life recently became a lot more complicated.

Conversations with her boss switched to e-mail only. Visits to the doctor require additional planning. She feels helpless in Greece’s bureaucratic labyrinth.

“It’s like someone flicked a switch and turned off your voice,» said Plakoura, a deaf woman who works at the Education Ministry.

Plakoura joined some 2,000 disabled demonstrators at a rally in central Athens this week to protest sweeping benefit cuts imposed in Greece’s economic crisis that have deprived her of sign-language translation.

In August, a five-year-old program providing deaf people with interpreters was suspended after the government abruptly cut its funding to less than half. Overnight, 15,000 deaf people around Greece were left without help to report a crime to the police, rent a house or go to a job interview.

Funding cuts have opened up gaps across welfare services, with slashed services and longer waiting times for vulnerable groups including the blind, recovering organ-transplant patients, autistic children, and paraplegics in need of physiotherapy.

“This program is very important to us. It’s our bridge to the outside world and it’s vital for our education,» Plakoura said in sign language, her speech relayed by one of the very translators whose help is being cut off.

“People have gone back to writing things down, or taking a relative, but it’s not the same thing,» she said. «It makes things very difficult for us, and especially for elderly deaf people.”

The axed program is the latest casualty of Greece’s draconian austerity measures that have battered social services as demand for help by the recession-hit public increases.

Independent welfare programs that rely on grants from the state offer a tempting target to a government fighting the threat of bankruptcy. Unlike state-run programs, which enjoy strong legal protections, the government can simply turn off the money taps.

As a result, independent programs to assist the disabled, the elderly, psychiatric patients and recovering drug users have all suffered steep cuts, occasionally with dramatic consequences.

An alarming rise in HIV infections in 2011 has been blamed in part on problems with needle exchange programs for drug users. Between January and October this year, 190 new infections of the deadly virus were reported among intravenous drug users, compared with 14 in the first 10 months in 2010, according to the Health Ministry.

Groups representing the disabled and other vulnerable Greeks have held several demonstrations outside the Finance Ministry, on Athens’s main Syntagma Square, but getting attention is difficult in a city where between four and five protests are held every day.

At his suburban headquarters, Costas Gargalis, who heads the National Association of the Deaf in Greece, is struggling to keep his 60-member network of interpreters together, hoping to restart the program sometime next year.

“Since the program was suspended, it’s been really chaotic,» he said. «Some people can pay for interpreters on occasion, but others have simply postponed their tasks forever.”

Gargalis, who is deaf, spends his working day in hectic silence: swiftly thumbing text messages on his cell phone, poring over fax requests from around Greece, and making video calls over the Internet.

His interpreters program started with an annual state grant of 250,000 euros ($333,200) in 2006; that was steadily reduced to 180,000 euros ($240,000) this year, before being suddenly slashed to 80,000 euros ($106,600) in August.

“We were immediately over-budget and had to suspend the program. And even then, interpreters were left unpaid for two months of work,» said Gargalis.

At previous funding levels, deaf people were offered 25 hours a year with interpreters. If the program is restarted next year, they will receive no more than 10 hours, Gargalis said.

“The amount of money we are asking for is laughable,» he said, speaking through an interpreter. «This is a matter of survival for us.”

Interpreters for the deaf need six years of training to get their license, and are paid below-minimum wage to crisscross Greek cities daily and provide help communicating.

“People generally become interpreters because they are interested in the subject,» registered interpreter Costas Christodoulakos said.

“Now they are obliged to look for other work and take on other commitments, often unrelated to their interpreting jobs,» he said. «What else can they do?”

Greece’s debt-shackled economy has been kept alive by international rescue loans for the past 19 months, and creditors are pressing for more aggressive spending cuts, as the Socialist government continues to miss deficit-cutting targets and heads into a fourth year of recession in 2012.

Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos promised this week to submit protesters’ demands to the country’s new prime minister, and invite disabled groups to join negotiations on a major new tax code due to take effect next year.

Health care is facing major cuts this year — down from 7 billion euros originally planned to 5.6 billion euros ($9.4 billion to $7.5 billion), excluding state insurance subsidies.

Since the debt crisis started in late 2009, store closures have exceeded 20 percent in some commercial parts of Athens, while more than 275,000 people have lost their jobs nationwide, the vast majority in the private sector, pushing the unemployment rate to more than 16 percent.

“The unemployment rate among disabled people is normally more than double the national average … so there is an urgent need for disabled people to be protected (from the cuts),» Yiannis Vardakastanis, leader of the National Confederation of Disabled People, said in an interview.

“The effects of the initial (government spending) cuts were not immediately obvious. But the cuts being made now have brought parts of the care system to a state of near-collapse.»

[The Associated Press]

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