Greek strikes hit health care, universities as austerity talks on hold

ATHENS, Greece – State doctors in Greece on Wednesday extended a strike through Dec. 13, after negotiations with the government over job cuts failed.

The government is under pressure from international bailout lenders to make deeper cuts in a sixth year of recession, prompting doctors employed by the country’s largest public health insurer to launch strikes last month.

While not affecting emergency care at hospitals, the doctors’ protest has led to longer waiting times for regular medical appointments.

Health Minister Adonis Georgiadis said hospitals would increase their workload during the strike.

“If the (unions’) view is that they intend to strike forever, and their approach is all or nothing, our answer is that this government and our society will not tolerate blackmail by any group protecting its interests,” he said.

Anti-austerity strikes have intensified as the government scrambles to meet targets for job cuts and implement other cost-cutting measures. Athens University, the country’s largest, has been closed since the start of the fall semester, also due to cuts in administrative staff. The latest government attempt to break the deadlock at the university failed on Wednesday.

The government is struggling to finalize a new agreement with international lenders needed to receive continued rescue loan payments. Negotiators from the European Union and International Monetary Fund postponed a visit to Athens this week, but government officials insisted the process would be concluded by the end of the month.

Greece has already received most of the money expected from its 240 billion euro ($325 billion) bailout package but must meet cost-cutting targets to qualify for long-term debt relief promised by lenders to make its 320 billion euro (435 billion) national debt sustainable.

In Brussels, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he did not believe the talks were at an impasse, but more work was still needed on a 2014 budget gap, tax and public administration reform, privatization, and market reforms.

“Greece has made impressive progress over the last year, and the hard work is paying off. Greece is set to emerge from recession next year and is on track to reach a primary budget surplus,” Barroso said.

“However we know that the economic situation is still fragile and this is not the time to fall victim to reform fatigue.”