European health policy and the Conference on the Future of Europe

On the 23rd of October, the Liberal Democrats Abroad and the Liberal Democrats European Group held a discussion session with Irish Senator Timmy Dooley about the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe’s contribution to the Conference on the Future of Europe. Mr Dooley underlined the importance of hearing British views on Europe’s future, to help learn the lessons from Brexit, meet citizens’ expectations, and shape the EU into an organisation that the British people would be excited to rejoin.

In health, he mentioned the disillusionment caused by an initially slow response to vaccine procurement. Things have vastly improved since then, although, this is an important opportunity to take stock of what Europe does in health – and what else we might like it to do.

Firstly, on pharmaceuticals. Manufacturers can apply to the European Medicines Agency for EU-wide marketing authorisation for their products, but that doesn’t  automatically mean they’ll be available across the EU. Medicine pricing and reimbursement decisions are up to the Member States of the EU. Some have joined together to evaluate the impact of these newly available medicines and decide pricing, such as the Beneluxa group. Is there more Europe can do in this area? Should such coalitions expand to include other EU members – and could the UK get involved?

Europe also offers manufacturers incentives, based on market exclusivity for their new product for a period of time before competing medicines can come into play. The European Commission is examining changes to the rules, which could make these incentives conditional on EU-wide product availability or meeting health needs not yet addressed by existing products. At the same time, it seeks to make the process of getting market authorisation more efficient and less expensive, while maintaining high standards. Should it reform these incentives to influence manufacturers’ behaviour, and if so, how can the EU balance those two issues in a way that works for manufacturers and patients?

The Commission is also reviewing the rules on children’s and rare disease medicines, for similar reasons – how can we incentivise these treatments and make sure patients can access them?

COVID-19 has led to a flurry of activity in the European health crisis preparedness field. The European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) will aim to coordinate the EU’s response to health crises. Particularly, it will monitor supply chain issues and fund procurement and distribution of crisis-related protective equipment and treatments. The EU also seeks to give new powers to the European Medicines Agency and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control to (respectively) advise developers on addressing shortages and conduct ongoing surveillance. Does this go far enough to address citizens’ concerns about access to the medicines they need? The EU is facing heavy criticism about its vaccine purchasing processes and its opposition to waiving intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines. Is there something more the EU – or its members – could or should be doing? Are we ready for the next pandemic?

Finally, prior to the pandemic, the EU’s health policy increasingly focused on cancer. There is a Beating Cancer Plan at EU level, and a European Parliament special committee focused on the topic. The Plan is too detailed to fully explain in an LDV article; generally speaking, it provides funding and support for actions on prevention, early detection, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer, as well as the quality of life of cancer patients and survivors. If you had 4 billion EUR to spend on fighting cancer across Europe, what would you prioritise?

In conclusion, these discussions around cancer have also referred to the elephant in the room. The Chair of the European Parliament’s Special Committee on Beating Cancer, Bartosz Arłukowicz MEP (European People’s Party, Poland) raised the topic of the EU’s powers in health. He suggested questioning EU Treaty provisions that currently limit the EU to supporting the Member States in protecting human health (except on specific public health safety concerns, where it works jointly with them on legislation.) Do you agree with him that we should have ‘more Union in health policy’, or is that a step too far for British and European citizens to accept at this stage?

* Hannah Bettsworth is a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats Council for Europe, and the Liberal Democrat Federal International Relations Committee. Outside of politics, she works in European affairs consultancy on health policy.