Juncker’s health plans drive a wedge between partners

Juncker’s health plans drive a wedge between partners

Commission reorganisation announcement prompts health NGO to pull out of plans to create a health intergroup in the European Parliament


9/11/14, 5:48 PM CET

Updated 9/12/14, 9:55 AM CET

The modifications to health policy management that Jean-Claude Juncker, the president-elect of the European Commission, plans to introduce have provoked a storm of criticism from civil society groups and prominent MEPs.

The decision to shift responsibility for pharmaceutical products away from the health portfolio has been greeted as “ridiculous”, “deplorable”, and “a bad day for public health”. Today (11 September) the outrage has prompted a major European health non-governmental organisation to register its protest by pulling out of plans to create a health intergroup in the European Parliament that would have brought civil society and industry together.

The European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) said today that it is withdrawing its support for the proposed Health for Citizen’s Intergroup. “It is with great regret we feel this is no longer achievable due to the developments of the last 24 hours”, it said in a statement. It blames Juncker’s decision to move the governance of key dossiers relating to public health from the commissioner responsible for health and food safety to the Commissioner responsible for enterprise and industry. “This is not a decision that EPHA can support”, it said.

EPHA, an umbrella group bringing together more than 100 health charities and NGOs from across Europe, had been discussing support for an intergroup. This would have been – as EPHA says – “part of a coalition of non-governmental organisations and organisations representing economic operators, a new and exciting venture with the expectation of supporting the European Parliament in implementing a coherent approach to citizens’ health.”

But it says that the proposed change in the responsibilities of the new college of commissioners “is in direct contradiction to the need for a coherent and unified health policy within the European Union. This change makes our support for the proposed Intergroup untenable and in direct contradiction with our core position that health and healthcare should be led by public health interests and the public good.”

EPHA’s interim secretary-general, Emma Woodford, told European Voice today that it was not possible in these circumstances to sit down with industry.

EPHA and the European Patients Forum – another major umbrella group – had been exploring with European pharmaceutical industry associations – the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) and the European Generic medicines Association – the possibility of a joint intergroup.

Widespread dismay 

Initial satisfaction among health-related NGOs at the designation of former Lithuanian health minister Vytenis Andriukaitis as health commissioner rapidly gave way to dismay when details emerged of the shift in control of pharmaceutical regulation. British socialist MEP Glenis Willmott, who acquired prominence in the discussions on the EU’s new rules on clinical trials, said it was “ridiculous that medicines and medical devices moved to DG Enterprise, who resisted clinical trial transparency”.

“I find it hard to believe”, she said. “When I was negotiating the transparency laws for clinical trial results, it was DG Enterprise that wanted to water the rules down. Now they will be overseeing the European Medicines Agency as it implements the transparency regime, which is frankly concerning.” She concluded: “This was a bad decision from President Juncker, I hope he will quickly come to his senses and rectify it.”

Health Action International Europe denounced the move as “deplorable”, claiming that “commercial interests are trumping public health again”. And Jim Murray, former director of European consumers organisation BEUC, said: “This is a good day for the pharmaceutical industry, but a bad day for public health.”

By contrast, EFPIA has welcomed the proposed Commission structure, which it says will help to “bring down silos” between different departments.

“The President of the Commission has taken on our views and put together all units that are relevant for our business in Europe. They were previously spread over SANCO, MARKT and ENTR”, said EFPIA’s director general, Richard Bergström.

Peter O’Donnell