sustainability of health systems, european health union

Megan Warrender, Editor for Open Access Government, illustrates Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides’ priorities in supporting Member States to improve the quality and sustainability of health systems

Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed gaps in the European Union’s capacity to react effectively to public health threats.

“We must be better prepared for future health emergencies. And better collaboration is key to that goal. That is why we’re pressing ahead with our ambitious plans to shape a strong European Health Union,” stated Commissioner Stella Kyriakides at the 2021 European Health Summit.

Among these ambitious plans are, firstly, a stronger European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) with enhanced capacities in terms of risk assessment, public health surveillance, preparedness and response, and secondly, a strengthened European Medicines Agency (EMA) to help ensure timely access to life-saving medicines.

In February 2022, Commissioner Kyriakides declared that Europe has “already successfully reached political agreement to strengthen the mandate of our agencies, the EMA and ECDC.” This will enhance the EU’s capacity for preparedness, surveillance, risk assessment, early warning and response.

“We must be better prepared for future health emergencies. And better collaboration is key to that goal.”

– Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety

A long-term vision for the sustainability of health systems

While these measures are proving extremely beneficial to European healthcare in the aftermath of the COVID- 19 pandemic, a long-term vision for a Health Union that will protect European citizens’ health, our economies and our societies into the future is also necessary.

Several priorities have been revealed for 2022 and beyond, including:

Cancer prevention and care – Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan is already in motion, with a broad range of actions to reduce the impact of cancer and address inequalities across Europe. It is hopeful that work on cancer will also positively impact the prevention of other non-communicable diseases.

Accessible and affordable medicine – with the upcoming reform of the pharmaceutical legislation the Commission will propose ambitious action to ensure that all Europeans have equal and timely access to affordable, safe and effective medicines and treatments regardless of where they live.

Digitalisation – the EU is preparing to propose European Health Data Space in less than two months, to make sure Europe reap the potential of health data to strengthen health research, while also ensuring that citizens always remain in control of their data.

As you can see, the work to strengthen the European Health Union is both broad and deep. Commissioner Kyriakides stressed, “we ARE already going far beyond core health security.”

International support for health policy during crises

As well as building a strong European health union, Europe is showing its solidarity in facing cross border threats. Through the global ‘Stand Up For Ukraine’ campaign, the European Commission has created a new system to channel donations from the private sector to Ukraine, Moldova and the neighbouring EU Member States, to help cater for the needs of internally displaced and refugees.

This includes coordinating the delivery of large-scale donations of vital healthcare items such as medicines, vaccines, medical equipment, tents, beds and emergency blankets.

Commissioner Kyriakides, commented on the importance of campaign: “The healthcare response is a crucial part of our support to Ukraine and the bordering countries. I am pleased to announce that through our work with the Health Emergency preparedness and Response Authority, HERA, we have secured the availability of crucial vaccinations to protect those who are fleeing the brutal Russian invasion, in particular the most vulnerable and children.”

HERA: A key pillar of the European Health Union

Here, we learn more about Pierre Delsaux, Director General and Head of the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA)

At the end of 2021, the European Commission appointed Pierre Delsaux as Director-General to the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (DG HERA), a unique health security structure allowing Europe to be ahead of the curve.

“The EU has a clear vision for a post-pandemic future: Strengthen the resilience of our health systems. Raise our preparedness and response to health crises. Coordinate our actions. By working together at national, EU and global levels, we will all be safer in the face of future health threats,” stated Delsaux at the European Health Forum Gastein last year.

HERA anticipates threats and potential health crises, through intelligence gathering and building the necessary response capacities. Created in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, HERA will now ensure the development, production and distribution of medicines, vaccines and other medical countermeasures – such as gloves and masks – that were often lacking during the first phase of the response to COVID-19.

HERA operations require a significant and sustainable budget. Investing in prevention and preparedness now will result in a significantly lower human and economic cost later and will have a large return on investment – not only for the economy but also for society and the health of European citizens.

HERA activities will rely on a budget of €6 billion from the current Multiannual Financial Framework for the period 2022-2027, part of which will come from the NextGenerationEU top-up.

Health security is becoming a collective endeavour in the EU. After almost two years of a devastating pandemic, HERA acts as a symbol of the mindset shift on health policy, and across sectors, Europe is rallying behind it. Acting together allows for a real difference to be made, for the sustainability of health systems and health security of European citizens.

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