István Ujhelyi, a Hungarian MEP and the first vice chair of the Parliament’s transport committee, began pushing an idea for a minimum health care standard in the EU at the beginning of the Parliament’s term. Now it’s one of the more controversial items that could be included in the S&D’s proposal for increasing the EU’s health competence, which the party should adopt this week. Ujhelyi described the idea to Jillian Deutsch (Politico) this weekend.
Time to give up power: By leaving health care to national capitals, “the European Union only shrugs its shoulders when it comes to the intolerable condition of the health systems of some member states, which, in a number of cases, present national security risks,” he said. “It’s time to make health a priority area for the EU and … make health care funding a national priority in the member states.”
The idea begins: Ujhelyi notes that in his native Hungary, thousands of doctors and nurses leave for wealthier European countries. Meanwhile, there are regional disparities in diseases in the EU. For example, people in the East are more likely to get the nosocomial infection (a disease contracted in hospitals) than those in the West, while those in the West are more likely to get certain diseases due a lack of vaccinations. “Just a tiny hole on our common boat is enough to let the water slowly turn it to its side and eventually sink the sailboat,” he said.
So what are minimum health care standards, really? Ujhelyi’s idea is that the EU would mandate minimum requirements for health care workers; create transparent, centrally-managed wait lists; and reduce out-of-pocket health payments. He also wants countries to consider a “sectoral minimum wage” and spend more on health systems. If they can’t afford to do so, the EU’s long-term budget, the Multiannual Financial Framework, could step in, he adds. He knows it’ll be a hard sell: “There will be those who will sharply protest against deeper EU regulation of health care systems,” he conceded. Ujhelyi said he already received a letter from one country’s health minister who expressed understanding for Ujhelyi’s position — but didn’t want to give up full member-state competence over health. His sales pitch: Health care problems cross borders, Ujhelyi argues. “A solid foundation is needed, a minimal guarantee that balances out the fragile systems.” The coronavirus outbreak showed the need for integrated and quality health systems; a strong workforce and infrastructure; as well as the right legal framework and the appropriate funds to make it work. “We must cross certain boundaries, certain fossilised European dogmas,” he said. “Such is the sacred cow of member state competence.”
Former Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis was joined by former Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc and former Parliament President Klaus Hänsch to pen a Euractiv op-ed calling for boosting the EU’s health powers, arguing the EU’s role in coordinating health policies has “been watered down over time, often for political reasons.” The EU is “not adequately prepared” to handle health crises, as the coronavirus crisis shows — as seen with the poor coordination between countries, limited reserves of supplies and shortage of health workers. And there will be more health issues in the future, like antimicrobial resistance, they warn. Time for power: The three push for a treaty change to make this happen, so that the EU can take public health action and the Commission can have its own resources and competences in public health and handling emergencies. Moreover, the EU “should share responsibility in ‘care and cure’ in the areas of rare cancers and rare diseases while preserving subsidiarity as a core principle,” they write.”