EU health programme needs proper funding to be ready for present and future challenges

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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The ambitious new EU4Health programme needs adequate funding if we really want it to be efficient and reach its goal to protect citizens’ health in the years to come, write three European lawmakers.

Véronique Trillet-Lenoir, Nicolae Ștefănuță are MEPs from the liberal group Renew Europe. Sara Cerdas is an MEP from Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

Being healthy appears as the main concern of European citizens in many recent surveys.

At the European level, health care is an important economic sector, taking up nearly 10% of EU GDP each year (€1,286 billion), overshadowing the 1 trillion budget of the entire EU multiannual financial framework, which spans seven years.

Needless to say, the EU health program budget is but a fraction in terms of funding, making it totally inadequate to answer the colossal health challenges we are facing at a European level.

The ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has taught us a harsh lesson: without proper coordination and robust EU instruments to respond to cross-border threats, the first impulse of member states faced with an unprecedented menace was to turn inwards, rather than opting to cooperate for mutual benefit.

Thus choosing to close borders and restrict the flow of medical equipment and medicine, further aggravating shortages in times of need and impeding any meaningful response.

Instead of competing against one another, we must cooperate and learn from one other. Instead of watching citizens enjoy varying levels of health services, we could offer them a high and consistent European standard.

Whereas in other policy areas Europe is synonymous with quality, in the area of health it still remains synonymous with division.

The Commission, sensing the urgency for concrete action, proposed a historic budget of €9.4 billion, for the future European program on health, also known as EU4Health.

A massive 20-fold increase from previous financial exercises, making the program better suited to address complex cross-border health challenges, such as coordinating an EU-wide response to the ongoing pandemic, tackling the rise of microbial resistant bacteria or addressing the issue of prevention in an ageing European population and the accompanying burden of chronic conditions, like cancer or heart disease.

Ultimately, negotiations between The Commission and The Council ended up with a massive €7.7 billion cut to the initially proposed EU4Health budget, which is far from adequate.

Common problems can only have common solutions, and over the years, time and again, EU wide programs have shown high added value, greatly outweighing their costs. If we want to address common health challenges across Europe, we need a comprehensive and robust EU4Health program.

One challenge we chose to tackle with the help of the EU4Health program is the ambitious European Plan to Beat Cancer.

This age-old disease claims the lives of nearly 1.4 million Europeans each year and leads to 2.3 million potential years of working life lost due to premature death (a total productivity loss of €70 billion/year).

Such an endeavour involving countless researchers, doctors and patients alike is out of reach for anyone individual member state and needs a unified, multisectoral approach with proper funding in order to be successful.

EU-wide cancer screening programs, research and development of new drugs and treatments, palliative care for patients and survivors are all at risk of falling short of achieving a meaningful impact on the EU’s fight against cancer due to lack of funding.

Another challenge is access to affordable health care for cross-border workers and intercommunity residents.

As the Union is getting more and more economically integrated, the dynamics of long-term residents in another member state and of cross-border or seasonal workers are also rapidly changing, prompting new issues like access to personal health records, continuing treatment and medical surveillance for chronic diseases or benefiting from health coverage in the country of residence.

The EU4Health program can help to standardize Electronic Health Records Exchange between member states, making them easily interchangeable.

All while supporting EU-wide health coverage schemes that are reliable and accepted by all stakeholders, ensuring that working citizens, regardless of their employment status, are not only contributors but also beneficiaries of a welfare system.

As we have experienced firsthand, viruses and bacteria know no borders, and successfully fighting a pandemic or the spread of an antimicrobial-resistant bacteria in one country does not mean an end of a potential health crisis.

When it comes to tackling cross-border health threats, we are all in the same boat. We need EU-wide programs that ensure proper coordination and allocation of resources and effective cooperation between member states and EU institutions.

We need to establish a joint EU stockpile of medicine and medical equipment, secure medical supply chains and restore European autonomous production lines of active substances in order to fight medicine shortages. We should have a better prepared and equipped European Medical Corps that is ready to deploy on short notice.

The COVID-19 crisis and others before it have shown us that cross-border health threats, especially those that disseminate rapidly, need to have a European Health Response Mechanism: a centralised, coordinated response, short response time and tight cooperation between member states and EU institutions in order to accomplish common objectives, much like a well-coordinated military operation.

As is with climate change, cross-border health threats are extremely demanding issues that no nation can face alone. Furthermore, the crisis has pointed out the fact that the most vulnerable pay the highest health damage as well as economical price.

A strong budget for the EU4Health Program is crucial for raising the preparedness levels across the Union, strengthening cooperation and the sharing of resources, thus setting the foundations for a Europe of Health – a space of solidarity for cooperation and integration in the provision of the best available health services to its citizens.

The world is changing at an unprecedented pace: global warming, cross-border health threats, economic crises are all part of our new reality.

As the old Roman saying goes, “Si vis pacem, para bellum” – if you want peace, prepare for war – we need to make sure that Europe has adequate instruments and proper funding in order to stand prepared in the face of a wide range of present and future challenges.

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