On 26 June Health First Europe attended a debate on ‘Equity of Access to Quality Healthcare’ at the European Parliament.

Following the First Conference on Health Inequalities in the New EU Member States held in Sofia in September, MEP Andrey Kovatchev (EPP, BG) sponsored a follow-up event to discuss the outcome of the initiative. The European Patients’ Forum (EPF) – as Ms. Nicola Bedlington, the EPF Executive Director, explained – was actively involved in the organisation of the Conference.

Firstly, Ms. Emily Peasgood illustrated the results of a survey carried out amongst patients’ organizations in the new EU Member States and candidate countries. The results show that patients are worried about the impact of the economic crisis on their lives. Patients surveyed also feel that improving healthcare infrastructure and the quality of services are issues that need to be urgently addressed.

After hearing the overall patients’ perspective on access to care, Ms. Nicola Bedlington invited Mr. Achim Kautzfrom the European Liver Patients’ Association (ELPA) and Mr. Erik Briers from the European Prostate Cancer Coalition to talk about two case studies: hepatitis and oncology patients.

Mr. Kautz presented the audience with data related to hepatitis patients and underlined that good medication is available but access to it is still problematic. He talked about pricing problems and called for a voluntary scheme for industry and Member States as a possible solution. “Patients need to be informed,” said Mr. Briers, and the situation varies very much among Member States. The same is true for sophisticated diagnostic tools or equipment for treatment that are not available to the same extent in all European countries.

Ms. Dessislava Dimitrova, Chair of the Standing Committee for the WHO Regional Committee, was invited by MEP Kovatchev to talk about collaboration between EU Member States. She presented Health 2020, a policy framework agreed upon by 53 countries of the WHO European region and said that improving health equity is at the core of what this strategy aims to achieve.

Ms. Nathalie Chaze, Head of Unit at the Directorate General for Health & Consumers, contributed to the discussion by giving an overview of what actions the EU has taken to reduce inequalities in the new Member States. She cited the ‘Conclusions on Equity and Health in All Policies’ adopted by the Council in 2006 and the country-specific Recommendations that the Commission elaborates for each Member State. Finally, she expressed her concern about the lack of transparency in pricing of medicines, a topic touched upon also by Mr. Johan De Cock of the Belgian Institute of Health & Disability Insurance (RIZIV).

MEP Alojz Peterle (EPP, SI) and MEP Antonyia Parvanova (ALDE, BG) joined the discussion panel moderated by Mr. Nikos Dedes of Positive Voice, an organisation representing HIV patients in Greece, who reminded everyone that health inequalities not only affect new EU members as the situation in his home country shows. MEP Peterle, who experienced cancer himself, said that patients do not like to be punished just because they were born in the wrong place and stressed the need for better coordination at the European level.  MEP Parvanova called for full EU competence in health and said that having a single parliamentary Committee covering both environment and public health does not put health as high on the political agenda as it is in the personal agenda of European citizens.  MEP Petru Constantin Luhan (EPP, RO), Winner of the 2013 MEP Award for Health, stressed the importance of engaging all relevant stakeholders.

Finally, MEP Kovatchev thanked all participants and invited his fellow colleagues from the Parliament to join him in the setting up of an informal Group of MEPs aimed at tackling this issue.