Open Access Government details the priorities and intentions of the new European Health Commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis
Born in 1951, Vytenis Andriukaitis holds degrees in medicine and history and started his political career just after high school. He is one of the authors of the Lithuanian Constitution of 1992 and a signatory to the 1990 Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania. Andriukaitis entered politics in 1976 as an underground Social Democrat, and was among those who re-established the Social Democratic Party of Lithuania in 1989. He was an active member of the Lithuanian Reform Movement Sąjūdis, fighting against the Soviet, before becoming an active politician. He has also served as a cardiovascular surgeon for almost 20 years.
Andriukaitis was also the Minister of Health in the Republic of Lithuania from 2012-2014 and is currently the Vice-President of 67th World Health Assembly.
MEPs approved the new college of 27 Commissioners, including Andriukaitis, as presented by its President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker in October 2014, and is a welcome appointment according to The European Public Health Alliance. Andriukaitis spoke at their annual conference in 2014 where he said, “Health is not a consequence of growth but also a condition for growth. Investments in public health increase productivity and boost job creation. Health should not only be seen as a product of growth: health encourages growth.”
Emma Woodford, EPHA Interim Secretary General reacted to his appointment stating that “Better attention should be paid to socio-economic determinants of health, health promotion and prevention. Once he is confirmed as Health and Food Safety Commissioner by the European Parliament in October, he should put forward an agenda based on greater investments in health with a focus on social determinants.”
Andriukaitis has long held the belief that health policy has a key role to play in economic growth, repeating again the sentiment that “healthy people are more creative and productive. Their well-being sets the foundations that move societies forward. Health in all policies should be the driving force of our efforts to cut inequalities as it lays the groundwork for social justice and economic sustainability”.
In his written answers to questions from MEPs before his official appointment, he provided details of what his top priorities would be in the fields of public health and food safety:
With regard to past crises such as BSE and SARS, which have shown the economic value of strong health protection, he intends to pursue the highest standards;
He believes we need ‘a new boost for health in Europe’ if we are to improve people’s health and boost jobs and growth. He, therefore, intends to “promote investment in health, as an investment in Europe’s human capital and an investment in our future”;
The priorities surround promotion, protection and prevention. Andriukaitis intends to deliver real benefits to citizens and support key sectors of the EU economy such as the healthcare sector – as well as the agro-food industry;
- Against a backdrop of population ageing, a growing burden of chronic diseases and increasing demand for healthcare, he will support efforts to make health systems more efficient and innovative; so that they can provide equitable healthcare to all citizens while remaining financially sustainable;
- To assess the performance of health systems reform within the European Semester;
- To focus on enhancing prevention, as the more health systems invest in this field, the less they will pay for treatment in the future;
- Andriukaitis will seek to make recent EU legislation having an impact on the protection of public health deliver results to citizens. For example, to ensure the timely adoption of secondary legislation foreseen under the Tobacco Products Directive. He intends to work tirelessly with the Member States to ensure the Directive on patients’ rights in cross border healthcare translates into citizens’ better access to quality care; into in-depth co-operation on e-Health towards better care; and into joint work on Health Technology Assessment to improve patients’ access to innovative technologies, business predictability and cost-effectiveness;
- Working with the Member States to protect citizens against any cross border health threat;
- Promoting healthy and safe food as a means to prevent unnecessary spending in healthcare and help the Member States improve the long term sustainability of their health systems;
- Endeavour to ensure high levels of animal and plant health, providing strict controls on the safety of imported products of both plant and animal origin;
- To work with all stakeholders to maintain and improve food safety systems contributing to President Juncker’s plans for a Europe with more jobs and greater prosperity, particularly for SMEs which make up the bulk of the food sector.
Andriukaitis made it clear that all legislative proposals currently under discussion with the European Parliament and the Council are brought to a successful conclusion, including the proposals on animal health, plant health, official controls, novel food, cloning, zootechnics and medicated feed. He also promised that within the first 6 months he would review the legislation applicable to the authorisation of genetically modified organisms.
Health systems performance assessment
In his speech on the 27th January at the launch of the European Health Consumer Index 2014, Andriukaitis reiterated his priority as mentioned above. Namely – promotion, prevention, protection, but also added ‘participation’ in thanks to his young followers on social media. He also referred to the importance of health systems performance assessment – a useful tool to understand how we work and how we can improve. He believes that the assessment will build up knowledge which can help make evidence-based policies at national and European levels. Member States and the Commission have agreed to pursue a set of common goals, the first of which is a forum where they could:
- Exchange their experiences;
- Present their practices;
- Share success stories; and
- Learn from each other.
The second goal is to support national policymakers by identifying tools and methodologies to improve the assessment of their health systems. Cooperation will also take place with organisations such as the OECD and WHO.
According to Andriukaitis “health information is at the foundation of good performance assessment”, with the European Commission making considerable efforts to “reinforce and ensure the sustainability of actions on health information”. Data collection supported by the Health Programmes has led to:
- Improvements of the methodology of statistics collection;
- Development and harmonisation of health indicators; and
- The preparation of health reports. Andriukaitis recognises that these steps don’t go far enough in themselves and wishes to ensure:
- The sustainability of data collection;
- Transparency in the development of indicators; and
- Full participation of Member States in their selection.
For Andriukaitis to realise the intentions and priorities he has laid out, he will need all the enthusiasm and stamina he can muster. An immediate topic at the forefront is the potential for a US free-trade deal agreement which could equate to the world’s biggest trade deal to date. However, with no clear majority emerging as yet, and with public opposition within Europe apparent, Andriukaitis will have to work hard to ensure buy-in by all national parliaments. No doubt the negotiations needed to ratify this deal would provide him with an early legacy, but there is still much to do, not just with the free-trade agreement, but on his promises made last year.