Commission to tackle ‘unacceptable’ health inequalities

The European Commission is to publish a communication before the end of the year aimed at addressing the growing ‘health gap’ across the EU and within member states.

Work on the policy paper is under way at DG Sanco, responsible for health and consumer affairs, and DG Employment, where occupational health issues are also likely to feature. 

At a briefing in Brussels hosted by the European Policy Centre, Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou said differences in health status were “unacceptable”. 

“I want to see EU citizens living in good health and having access to high-quality health services, regardless of where they live, what they do, and how much they earn. Sadly, the current reality is quite different,” she said. 

Vassiliou pointed to “huge gaps” between countries and social groups. “For example, there is a gap of 18 years in healthy life years across the European Union between the best and the worst.” 

She said the €5 billion in structural funds made available to help poorer regions invest in health is “a drop in the ocean,” adding that health spending in an investment. 

“A population in good health translates into a strong, productive labour force that takes fewer days off sick; that needs less healthcare; and that can continue working as it grows older,” said the commissioner. 

A spokesperson for Vassiliou said business partners will be consulted with and called upon to support the process. 

In figures: 

  • According to the most recent Eurostat figures, the gap in life expectancy at birth between EU countries for women is eight years (Bulgaria 76.3, France 84.4) and for men it is 13 years (Latvia 65.4, Sweden 78.8); 
  • Evidence suggests that for many member states (both new and old members) the gap in mortality has widened in recent decades;
  • There are 23 times more cases of tuberculosis in Romania than in Sweden (per 100.000 inhabitants); 
  • Heart diseases kill 12 times more women in Lithuania than in France, and; 
  • Hungary has an incidence rate of lung cancer five times higher than that of Sweden.

Although average life expectancies and health in general have increased over the last sixty years, concern has grown over inequalities in access to high quality healthcare. 

Within member states, citizens in lower socioeconomic groups have significantly lower life expectancies and lower health status. Yawning gaps are also apparent across Europe, with newer member states having less developed public health infrastructures. In addition, access to innovative medicines and health information technology varies across the Union. 

In March 2006, an EU expert group on social determinants and health inequalities was established. The European Commission funded the 'Closing the Gap' project, which concluded that "radical strengthening of policies and infrastructures" is needed. 

A White Paper on the EU Health Strategy, adopted in October 2007, stressed the need to tackle inequalities. In June 2008, the European Council called for greater efforts to close the gap in key health indicators between and within member states. 

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