ATHENS — On my trips overseas, I often find myself sizing up the country I happen to be visiting, and looking back by comparison at things going on at home.
Greece is in the final days before a Sunday parliamentary election, with the possibility that George Papandreou, the son and grandson of former prime ministers, may replace Kostas Karamanlis, nephew of a former prime minister.
I was chatting about the state of politics the other day with a Greek friend, and he was wondering out loud why his countrymen couldn’t find candidates besides those named Karamanlis and Papandreou, out of 12 million Greeks. “It’s a little bit like the Republicans and the Democrats,” said my friend, Kostas, trained as an economist. “I don’t think these guys would even be in politics at all if it weren’t for their famous last names.”
“Sounds familiar,” I said.
And the conversation turned to what was happening in the United States. I reminded Kostas that the big item on the table in Washington was the question of universal health care.
He just doesn’t get it. And neither do I. By sheer coincidence, the day after I arrived in Athens last week, I found myself taking my mother-in-law to the hospital at 4:00 a.m. after she’d fallen and sustained a cut on the side of her head. We arrived at the Hippocrates hospital clinic, about 10 minutes by car from our hotel, where we were able to communicate well enough with triage clerks and nurses. The wound was not serious, so they told us to have a seat and wait for a little while. The waiting room was modern, and we were given a number out of a series of priorities which were displayed on a large computer readout at one end of the room. “Don’t worry,” a nurse said. “It won’t take long.”
I saw people coming in with more serious injuries and a couple of older people that might have had heart attacks or similar ailments. They were brought in by efficient ambulances, and were quickly dispatched on gurneys to examination rooms.
My mother-in-law’s number came up after about 15 minutes, and she was ushered in. A friendly, Italian-trained doctor had a quick look, gave her two stitches and a tetanus shot, and told her to stop by his office for a checkup a few days later. “Oh, by the way,” he added, “let me write down your name.” He took notes on what he’d done and gave a copy to us.
That was it. We looked around, waiting, wondering, and the doctor smiled. We smiled. The nurses smiled.
“Nice to meet you,” they said.
What was missing from the picture? The hospital didn’t have an intake desk, didn’t have a pay window, and no billing procedures that we could see. It was free.
“Of course,” my friend Kostas said, “the vast majority of our hospitals are public hospitals. Maybe it’s not the best system in the world, but it’s quite efficient, and we’re happy.”
I told Kostas that a late night emergency room visit to a hospital back home probably –- ball park estimate -– would have cost $1,000.
“Why?” he asked.
“Well, a lot of Americans seem to think that universal health care is socialist. Americans don’t like the word socialist. And powerful people are fighting the idea of free health care.”
Kostas had generally heard of the issue, but couldn’t believe my description of the uninsured, of high insurance rates, and of people being kicked off the roles of insurance when they lose their jobs or get really sick.
“That wouldn’t be a campaign issue here,” Kostas said. Neither the present Prime Minister Kourmanlis, who belongs to a center-right political party, nor his possible successor, Papandreou, a center-left candidate, would ever question the right of citizens to receive quality health care from the government.
“It sounds crazy,” said Kostas.
– Peter Eisner