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Austerity brings Greece's healthcare system to its knees

(CBS News) ATHENS - Greece is broke, and it agreed to big cuts in government spending in return for a bailout by other European countries. However, because that austerity deal was so hated by Greeks, the government fell. The country will vote for a new parliament Sunday.

The question is: Will a new government abandon the bailout agreement, undermining the euro currency and the European Union? Why would Greeks risk that?

Dr. Chris Rokkas is a top cardiologist at Attikon hospital, but these days the U.S.-trained surgeon rarely sets foot in an operating room, which is bad news for Georgia Scambi, who needs surgery urgently.

"She is in serious risk for developing a fatal heart attack at this point," Dr. Rokkas said.

If he were in a hospital in America, Dr. Rokkas would have operated within 24 hours. One week later, however, he's still waiting for the right equipment.

Greece's bureaucratic healthcare system has always been inefficient, but austerity measures introduced in the wake of the financial crisis have cut public health spending by 25 percent -- $12 billion -- bringing the system to its knees.

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Doctors and nurses have seen their paychecks slashed by nearly a third. There are major shortages of drugs, and the hospital no longer has the money to purchase the medical equipment that Dr. Rokkas needs.

"The crisis has actually made a tough situation tougher. It never really was at the point where we worked well but now we have serious shortages of essential materials," Dr. Rokkas said.

The emergency room in his hospital was overflowing with new cases recently. Many who previously paid for private treatment can no longer afford it. Instead they end up at government run hospitals, and since the crisis began, many don't even have that option.

In Greece, if you are unemployed for more than a year or if you owe the government money -- taxes, or even an unpaid parking ticket -- you can lose your healthcare coverage. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks are now forced to come to free clinics for basic medical treatment. The free clinics are often run by charities.

Anna Sidiropoulou suffers from a chronic spinal condition. She lost her health insurance after her business went bust last year.

"I believe that people would die on the streets," she said through a translator, "if it weren't for clinics like this."

Dr. Rokkas said he is certain it is already a life-or-death situation.

"I can't pinpoint one or two patients in this hospital who were actually harmed by this situation but...somewhere in the country I'm sure that patients may have died as a result of this crisis," Dr. Rokkas said.

With the election on Sunday, it's a contest between those who would throw austerity overboard, and those who would keep it.

There is no polling allowed in the two weeks before the election, but based on interviews with average citizens, it really seems like it could go either way. Many people here want an end to austerity. They want an end to corruption in the government. But many people feel the reverse; they think the risk of asking to leave the euro zone is too much of a risk.

  • Clarissa Ward

    Foreign Correspondent, CBS News