EU must save health of citizens, not just banks

Intervention of MEP Alejandro Cercas at opening of conference:
“Can EU citizens afford their medicines?” 16th of May, 2013

Welcome to the S and D conference “Can EU citizens afford their medicines? The economic crisis and access to medicines in Europe.”  Today we shall consider one of the important social impacts of the current financial and economic crisis: the lack of access to quality health treatment.

When we speak about the economic crisis we usually focus on percentages of debt, the GNP,  bank bailouts and austerity measures.  We  often consider the health of macro-economic indicators but rarely do we consider the physical health of millions of human beings affected by this situation. Europeans want the EU to be just as concerned about the health of  its citizens as the health of large banks. But something must be very wrong with our political priorities if the European institutions can devote billions of euros to rescue the high finances of a member state but they cannot rescue many of  its citizens who today cannot afford a life-saving cancer drug.

It is simply unacceptable that millions of European citizens today cannot afford the best life-saving drugs. It is  also against the basic principles of the EU that millions of immigrants and other vulnerable populations across the EU have been excluded from essential public health care due to austerity measures .

The context is clear. The EU can only demand more discipline if there is more justice. More fiscal responsibility must be accompanied by more social solidarity. More EU economic integration must mean more integration  of social norms at the same time,  which means a broad convergence in access to health care across Europe. Unfortunately, that is not happening, at least over the last five years.

Without more justice and social cohesion there cannot be more Europe, or,  at least a Europe with broad public support.  Recent Eurostat opinion polls reflect a growing and worrisome crisis of citizen confidence in the European project.  Even if the drastic austerity measures being carried out in many EU countries, including my own, Spain,  someday regain the confidence of financial markets, we risk losing the confidence of a large proportion of Europeans.   If we choose to ignore the political and human costs of weakening our education, health and social welfare systems,  we may well be dealing a terrible blow to the future of the European Union.

Getting back to the question posed in the title of this conference: “Can EU citizens afford their medicines?”  It seems to be clear that in EU member states most affected by the crisis that the answer is probably no. This is for two simple reasons: on one hand the financial and economic crisis has meant that EU member states and individuals have much less money available to pay for these treatments and on the other hand many medicines are extremely expensive, especially those under patent monopolies, often more expensive in the EU than outside the EU.

The public health-care systems of around half of EU member states are having a very hard time paying the price of advanced, life-saving medicines. In many cases European patients must try to pay for these medicines partially or totally out of their own pockets. As austerity measures increase,  patient co-payment for important medicines also increase at the same time. As a result many people must choose between paying for their medicines and paying for their basic sustenance such as housing or food.

Very serious questions  also need to be posed concerning our biomedical innovation model, our public medicine procurement, our pricing systems and our taxpayer financed research.

We all know that the EU does not have direct competences over health care but still there is much that the European institutions can do to protect the right to health-care in the EU. The EU does have direct competences in areas such as the Internal Market, Competition, Intellectual Property Rights and Research that do have a profound effect on the accessibility, affordability and efficacy of the medicines that can save lives.

In the middle of this severe crisis, it is not acceptable that billions of public investment in research end up financing the  privatization of essential medical knowledge and produces medicines with astronomical prices that are unaffordable to most public health systems in the EU. It is not acceptable that the same taxpayers who finance an important part of medical research can not afford the products that are produced with their money.   Instead we should be promoting the creation of health related public knowledge goods  with all research financed with public money that can produce the essential medicines we need at affordable prices  We also need socially responsible licensing for affordable medicines to assure that Public-Private partnerships contains social conditionality.

It is not legal in the EU nor morally acceptable for drug companies to pay generic companies, pharmacists or doctors to keep affordable generic medicines off the market.

The European Commission should coordinate a voluntary system of joint public procurement of medicines so every hospital or region of Europe should not be left on its own to negotiate its procurement of medicines; we need to pool together the bargaining power of public authorities to guarantee affordable health treatments.

Greater transparency and sharing of knowledge across the EU  in the evaluation of  our medicines is also very important because we  need to know if the medicines we buy really work and what their secondary effects are.

In conclusion, a healthy European economy cannot be built with measures that deny quality health treatments for Europeans. We can only build the future of Europe by re-gaining the confidence of Europeans and one way of doing that is showing that the EU can take effective measures in favour of access to medicines. Thank you and I wish you a very successful conference.