Could EU’s cohesion policy be the health hero we always needed?

New own-initiative report suggests that we should make better use of cohesion policy to reduce health inequalities. [EPA-EFE / FILIPPO VENEZIA]

A new European Parliament’s own-initiative report suggests that we should better use the cohesion policy fund to reduce health inequalities.

Health inequalities across Europe are a well-known problem. As a report from European Cancer Organisation says, “overall, cancer incidence rates are highest in northern and western European countries and lowest in eastern and southern European, with the opposite patterns seen for mortality rates.”

Differences like these are a sign of first and second class citizens in the EU, Christian-democrat MEP Tomislav Sokol told EURACTIV in an interview.

The Croatian lawmaker is the rapporteur of a Parliamentary report recently voted through the committee on regional development (REGI) and is now waiting for the final approval in the plenary.

The report’s main aim is to call on the EU to make better use of the cohesion policy funds to tackle health inequalities between member states and regions.

While supporting new health initiatives rising from the ashes of the pandemic, such as the European Health Union, Sokol also wants a more explicit commitment to use the biggest portion of EU spending, the cohesion policy, to solve the problem of healthcare inequalities.

According to the MEP, the EU should also better evaluate the outcomes of health projects on health by cohesion funds in a bid to support recovery after the pandemic through Interreg projects.

“The disparities mainly reflect the differences in levels of development in the member states. These differences are also reflected in the healthcare spending per capita in different parts of the EU. So those less developed can invest less in health care,” Sokol said.

“This directly reflects on health outcomes like cancer, but also in general life expectancy, in less developed parts of the EU, especially rural parts of the EU,” he added.

A dedicated programme such as the new EU4Health for strengthening the resilience of health systems has a smaller budget than the €392-billion cohesion policy and is earmarked certain things, very few of which target health inequalities, the MEP continued.

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Strengthening cooperation on health

Since 2013 it has been possible to use health care in another EU country and later get reimbursed for it. This can be useful for some people, especially in border regions, if you are closer to a neighbouring country’s hospital than one in your own country.

But it would not be strange if you were unaware of this opportunity. A Eurobarometer survey from 2015 showed a lack of knowledge about cross-border health rights.

According to the Parliament, the Commission should manage cross-border healthcare better since patients face challenges and many people still are not aware of their rights to seek cross-border healthcare.

This, however, is not all that is needed. The report highlights the wish for “the use of cohesion policy funds for the development of specialised centres of excellence for specific diseases across the EU.”

“For instance, in my country, Croatia, there is a lot of diseases, especially rare diseases, [where we lack] expertise or equipment to treat patients. Why not establish centres of excellence for certain types of rare diseases that will cover more regions for different member states,” suggests Sokol.

The main idea is to provide health care for patients who cannot find what they need in their own country through better cross-border planning.

“You would not have to spend money on things which exist just the cross border. You can use this funding to invest into something else which is more needed,” he said.

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Tackling the brain drain

The brain drain phenomenon – where highly skilled workers do not have enough incentives to remain in certain regions and then leave – was also addressed in the report, especially as the EU’s Eastern are particularly impacted.

According to Sokol, investing in the education and specialisation of the health workforce via the European Social Fund is particularly needed. The objective is to create better working conditions for healthcare personnel to have an incentive to stay in the member state where they received their education.

“Better working conditions mean better equipment, better infrastructure in general, and things like that,” he said.

Creating more incentives to live and work in rural areas is another domain where cohesion funds are essential, the Croatian MEP stressed.

“[They] can be used to create better living standards in rural areas by providing public services, have a better economy, increase the skilling of people who live there, have better transport infrastructure,” he concluded.

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Alice Taylor]

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