One area where there seems to be wide political support for a bigger EU role is health technology assessment.

Ben Duncan
Senior Adviser

Innovative Medicines and Drug Prices – Overview

  • Access to innovative medicines is debated globally this autumn.
  • 18 ENVI Committee members expressed their opinion about EU options for improving access to medicines report.
  • Report gives 20 recommendations on improving access to medicines, although not many are expected to make it into the final report.
  • There is a wide political support for a bigger EU role in Health Technology Assessment (HTA).

Access to medicines – the talk of town

Everyone wants to talk about access to innovative medicines this autumn. In September: a high level panel established by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a report on the subject; the medical journal The Lancet published an editorial stating “the status quo is no longer an option”; and there was a Twitter-storm about healthy innovation at the European Health Forum Gastein. EU health minister got in early and issued a lengthy set of Council Conclusions in June on strengthening the balance in the pharmaceutical systems in the EU and its Member States: however, we found out at Gastein that EU health ministers will continue talking on this subject into 2017. It’s now October and the European Parliament’s ENVI Committee is sinking its teeth into the innovative medicines / drug prices dilemma.

MEPs speak out about access to medicines report

The received wisdom among political journalists is that Own Initiative reports are what Parliamentary committee’s produce when they don’t have enough real work to do. Usually committee debates on these reports are poorly attended. The debate on 12 October on the draft report EU options for improving access to medicines from Spanish Socialist MEP Dr Soledad Cabezón Ruiz was different. For a start, a total of 18 committee members (about a third of the committee) asked to speak. Secondly, there were some striking areas of consensus across the spectrum of European political opinion. While prominent Christian Democrat members such as Dr Peter Liese and Françoise Grossetête were still willing to defend the pharmaceutical industry as a source of jobs and prosperity, they also conceded the price of new drugs sometimes appears “excessive”. The pricing of new drugs that can cure Hepatitis C infection was cited as an example of this by MEPs of the right as well as the left. Admitting that there might be a problem puts you on the slippery slope towards having to find a solution.

Dr Cabezón Ruiz’s draft report puts forward a total of 20 recommendations for improving access to innovative medicines. These range from measures to promote the use of generic medicines to the creation of an “EU public platform” for medicines research funded by a levy on profits made by the pharmaceutical industry. She also calls on the Commission to put forward a law creating an EU level system of health technology assessment to identify added value medicines. Many of these recommendations will either not make it into the final report, or will be substantially altered by amendments tabled by committee members. What is important is that some of them will make it through the ENVI Committee on 28-29 November when it votes on the report. They may then become the view of Parliament as a whole when the plenary votes on the report early in 2017.

Support for a bigger EU role in HTA

One area where there seems to be wide political support for a bigger EU role is health technology assessment. Dr Liese, Mrs Grossetête and the EPP Group’s shadow rapporteur on the report, Dr Karl-Heinz Florenz, all supported the idea of doing such assessments at EU level for new medicines. The ALDE, EFDD, EFN and Green groups supported this too. The European Commission is already funding a network called EUnetHTA that links Member States’ health technology assessment agencies. This is funded as a project under the EU Health Programme 2014-2020. The Conclusions from June Health Council ask the Commission to develop thoughts about how to sustain this cooperation beyond 2020. So when the Commission representative at the 12 October ENVI meeting said he awaited the committee’s recommendations on this point with great interest, he probably meant it.