The European Parliament has passed a landmark directive which would allow Europeans seek healthcare abroad more easily and be reimbursed for the cost of doing so. However, EU member states are still working to iron out a range of practical difficulties before the plan can be formally adopted.
The controversial report was backed by MEPs by 297 votes to 120, amid 152 abstentions, and has been the subject of criticism from political groups and the Committee of the Regions (CoR), which represents local government at EU level.
Under the proposal, patients are to be reimbursed up to the level they would have received in their home country. Member states can also opt to cover other related costs, such as therapeutic treatment, accommodation and travel costs.
The directive includes a system requiring prior authorisation for the reimbursement of hospital costs in order to preserve the financial stability of member states’ social security systems.
EU countries wrangling with practicalities
The proposal will now be discussed by EU ambassadors early next month (6 May) as member states continue to wrangle over the practicalities of enhanced patient mobility. The plan has been discussed several times at meetings of EU governments this year, but Brussels insiders warn there is still much work to do before agreement is reached.
Among the outstanding issues to be resolved are how much power member states will have to control the flow of patients to their health services from outside their jurisdiction.
It is believed that the Czech EU Presidency is now suggesting that countries should have greater freedom when demanding prior authorisation for treatment, particularly for “specialised and cost-intensive” care. The presidency is hoping for political agreement at a meeting in Luxembourg on 8 June, so as to progress the issue before the end of its six-month term.
Cooperation by member states on health issues is a thorny issue as healthcare is a matter for individual countries, and there are significant differences in funding models of health and social insurance systems across the EU.
Socialists and radical left in political row
A political spat between the Socialist group and the more radical GUE/NGL leftist group unfolded on the sidelines of the debate, with the Nordic Greens accusing the Socialists of being internally divided.
The Socialist group abstained from the vote, and was the only major group not to issue a statement after the result. A spokesperson told EURACTIV that its concerns over prior authorisation and the legal basis for the directive had not been met.
Dutch MEP Kartika Liotard (GUE/NGL) said the proposed directive “opens the door to market forces in healthcare,” and accused the Socialists of indirectly putting economic concerns ahead of patients’ interests by abstaining rather than voting down the dossier.
When UK Conservative MEP John Bowis’s report was approved by the European Parliament’s committee on environment and public health at the end of March, the Socialist group opted to abstain at the last minute amid concerns over the wording of a number of amendments.
The EPP-ED and ALDE groups backed the plan, ensuring that it passed at first reading.