Post COVID-19, is it time for a genuine European Health Union?

Recent events have shown that Member States struggle to deal with supranational threats such as the current Coronavirus crisis; it’s time to look at a Health Union, writes Alessandra Moretti.
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By Alessandra Moretti

Alessandra Moretti (IT, S&D) is parliament’s shadow rapporteur of the Shortage of medicines - how to address an emerging problem

09 Dec 2020

The recent Communication by the European Commission on the Pharmaceutical Strategy comes at a delicate moment for public health and safety, access to treatment and availability of high-quality public healthcare. The current pandemic has shown the vital importance of efficient, accessible and equitable access to healthcare systems in Europe.

It has also demonstrated that no individual country is capable of facing the current multiple and cross-sectoral public health challenges alone; Europe needs to do more. Member States must recognise the fundamental role of the EU in this policy area. The Commission has demonstrated a commitment with this Communication; an important step for increasing access to safe, effective and affordable medicine for all patients.

“Each country is not capable of facing the current multiple and cross-sectoral public health challenges alone; Europe needs to do more”

We, as the S&D Group, have long been pushing for a modern and broad strategy on pharmaceuticals, addressing important aspects such as R&D, manufacturing, greater transparency on pricing and reimbursement as well as overall incentives and competitiveness. Unfortunately, too many patients in Europe still cannot access the treatments they need. Too many disparities remain, particularly socioeconomic and regional ones.

The ability to face a disease or a condition could be extremely different, depending on the country of residence; this is a discrimination that we should no longer accept. Shortages and inequalities in access to medicine and treatment already existed, but the COVID-19 crisis has further aggravated them. The European Parliament has recently taken an important stand, with the Report approved last September on medicine shortages.

There were concrete proposals included to strengthen healthcare for patients and ensure that medicines are affordable and available to all. The European Parliament reaffirmed the right to healthcare for everyone, requested a stronger and enhanced role for the European agencies responsible for public health, confirmed the fundamental role of research and innovation and proposed concrete measures for a regulatory environment able to address these challenges.

More specifically on shortages, the Report reafirmed the need to address the root causes of these and called for a more impactful EU response to this complex issue. For many reasons, no Member State is self-sufficient with regard to raw materials, active pharmaceutical ingredients and finished medicines. Thus, EU action is needed to restore European independence in terms of medicines and treatment.

The Commission’s proposal takes some of the Parliament’s suggestions on board, although many parts will need to be further clarified and actioned more precisely. That being said, it is reassuring that Europe can already rely on a strong pharmaceutical sector. Europe is one of the most advanced places in the world, in terms of healthcare quality standards. Unfortunately, R&D investments in this sector do not always address unmet needs, something the Communication highlights.

For many reasons - lack of commercial interest probably being the main one - too many critical diseases still lack effective treatments. This why we believe that the next Pharmaceutical Strategy must be patient- centred and have a strong focus on public interest. Of course, creating a favourable environment for research and innovation should be one of the objectives, but the interest of patients must be the foundation of any EU health policy.

“The protection of patients’ rights, and their opportunity to be treated promptly and adequately when needed, will have to be included in a broader and more comprehensive strategy”

This means that support and incentives to R&D for the private sector needs to be conditional on clear and binding public safeguards in terms of transparency, traceability, commitments, affordability, availability, fair prices and protection of the public interest. Furthermore, a patient-centred approach would need to be provided for any kind of financial support to the sector, while at the same time ensuring safety and effectiveness of medicines.

In this context, it is clear that the protection of patients’ rights, and their opportunity to be treated promptly and adequately when needed, will have to be included in a broader and more comprehensive strategy that goes beyond the pharmaceutical sector alone. This is why we, as the S&D Group, have been calling for the creation of a genuine and comprehensive European Health Union.

This should be able to set minimum standards for healthcare across Europe and protect our citizens in times where threats to public health are constantly evolving and supranational by nature. Since health is today an issue encompassing different policy areas, this strategy should properly coordinate its efforts with the incoming Cancer Plan, but also with the Green Deal and the European Pillar of Social Rights.

To conclude, the EU Pharmaceutical Strategy will be a key step to further protect European citizens in the years to come. We, as the S&D Group, will fight for improved health protection for all EU citizens and equal access to medicines and treatment.

Read the most recent articles written by Alessandra Moretti - European Health Union: Our number one priority