(Views do not necessarily represent TACD positions)
Something (almost) revolutionary happened recently at the EU Council of Ministers but it remains to be seen how courageous the European Commission will be.
By Yannis Natsis
The European Commission is currently considering how to follow-up on the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer affairs Council (EPSCO) Conclusions on “innovation for the benefit of patients” unanimously adopted in December 2014 under the Italian Presidency. Council conclusions reflect the positions of the governments of the 28 EU member states; are not legally binding but carry significant political weight. This 5-page document outlines the guidelines for the future priorities of the Council and the Commission and it includes several proposals that could be favorable to the positions of the civil society access to medicines movement. Of course, there are many that have seemingly been dictated by the industry for example clauses 35 a (active role in the decision-making process), and 32 (early access). Some of the most promising clauses are points 18 and 25 which highlight the high cost of medicines, clauses 29 & 40 which raise the issue of information exchange on prices and expenditure and the repeated references to the importance of Health Technology Assessment (henceforth HTA) mechanisms to evaluate the efficacy, safety and cost-benefit of a drug.
The most important and innovation-related clause by far is 35 (b) which reads “use existing relevant fora to reflect on whether criteria are needed to take account of added therapeutic value of new medicinal products in comparison with the existing ones for placing them on the market”. Indeed, this is a very welcome development as it has the potential to prevent products that have little or no added therapeutic value from coming onto the market. If elaborated further, it could signal an additional requirement upon pharmaceutical companies as they will have to prove not only the safety and efficacy but also the therapeutic advance in comparison to existing choices as opposed to present system that tends to only compare new products to placebo. In other words, they will need to demonstrate that the new medicine serves a purpose better than the existing alternatives on the market. Hence, it could prevent the proliferation of “me-too” products i.e. the majority of commercial-driven newly marketed so-called innovative medicines. This was defended by several member states who wish to protect their health budgets from the immoral prices demanded by the industry for some not so innovative new medicines. Based on the Conclusions, it is clear that the role of HTA bodies is growing and evolving in terms of pricing, reimbursement and assessment procedures and criteria. They play a key role in guaranteeing that the new drugs will perform better than the existing ones. This probably explains why HTA bodies are among the primary targets of the pharmaceutical industry and that the EC might be cutting financing for European coordination of HTAs.
The appropriate department of the European Commission, namely Directorate-General SANTE now has to examine how it will go about implementing these Conclusions in terms of presenting new pieces of legislation. The current Latvian Presidency of the Council has already made clear that it will leave the issue of medical innovation to the upcoming Luxembourgish and Dutch Presidencies, second half of 2015 and first half of 2016 respectively. However, already on February 17 2015, the senior level working group on public health of the Council will take place to discuss next steps. It is anticipated that Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg will lead the process from now onwards.
On the other hand, the European Commission is keen on pushing for “the safe and timely access to medicines” as indicated by the name of the sub-group recently set up by its Human Pharmaceutical Committee. There is a similar trend at the Council which is reviewing the criteria for the authorization of medicines particularly with regard to pricing and reimbursement as well as the “early access tools” specifically conditional marketing authorization, accelerated assessment and market authorization under exceptional circumstances (also mentioned in point 6 of the Conclusions). At the same time, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has been eagerly advocating the early approval of medicines as a way to ensure patients’ access to medicines through means such as the March 2014 “adaptive pathways” (formerly known as adaptive licensing) pilot project. This is an initiative hailed by the industry as it aims to improve and reduce the time for marketing and reimbursement decisions. It thus signals a bigger role for industry in the pre-licensing procedure and this puts the HTA bodies’ independence and right to assess the therapeutic added value at risk. There are also fears that speedier market authorization achieved through this process will have serious implications for patients’ health because they will rely on fewer clinical trial data.
All of the above; serve the diachronic pursuits of the industry which strives a) to place its products on the market as fast as possible at very high prices and b) have a place reserved around the negotiating table in relation to evaluation, pricing and reimbursement decisions.
2015 will not be a heavy year in terms of new EU legislation on health. The Commission and the Council will build on existing tools in sensitive areas such as HTA and market authorization. In this context, it is imperative that the debate on access to medicines is once again put on its true basis i.e. accessibility along with affordability, transparency and public scrutiny on all levels, public return for publicly-funded research, real innovation based on public health needs and proven therapeutic advance in comparison to existing medicines. In light of these troublesome developments, parts of the Council conclusions like the one on “the added therapeutic value of new medicinal products” become even more pertinent and should be underlined, defended and further strengthened. The new EU Health Commissioner should not miss the opportunity.