Affordable and high-quality healthcare for all Europeans: Not just a policy, but a model of the society we stand for

At the EESC plenary debate with Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, the EESC reiterated its unwavering support for a European Health Union. It urged the Commission to be ambitious in the implementation of the new European care strategy, which aims to ensure that each and every European has access to affordable and high-quality healthcare

At its plenary session on 22 September, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a debate on EU health policy initiatives with European Commission Vice President and Commissioner for Promoting our European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas.

EESC president Christa Schweng said, The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have clearly shown the need for the EU to act with solidarity and in a more coordinated way at the EU level. The EESC supports all EU initiatives to create a European Health Union and to increase resilience and preparedness for any future threats. Establishing a common European Health Data Space and improving digital literacy are also important for the European Health Union.

Commissioner Schinas praised the EU's response to the COVID-19 pandemic and described the EU strategy for vaccines as a scientific triumph and a European success story. However, there was no room for complacency, as the pandemic was not over and more efforts would be needed.

He said the whole EU was mobilised in full solidarity with Ukraine, providing medical equipment, medical aid at the borders or transferring patients to EU hospitals. I would like to commend you on the fact that many of you, employers, trade unionists and civil society representatives, are also heavily engaged in the solidarity process. We are truly grateful for your commitment and your work, which we find inspiring and fully complementary to our own management of the crisis.

However, both COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine represent a rude awakening for Europe and mark the end of the era of innocence. It is time to strengthen the EU project as a whole and to continue standing united, with our fundamental values of peace and prosperity, he said.

This awakening has shown us that we have to be more alert and assertive, more autonomous and resilient. If there is one policy where the quest for resilience and autonomy is needed more than elsewhere, it is health policy. We are determined to show that health is not just a policy, it is who we are, this is a part of the model of open society we stand for, of our European way of life, Mr Schinas stressed.

This is the human-centred way that Europe goes about education and health. As Europeans, we may have many differences, but we agree that we must have efficient, universal, effective and free healthcare and education for all, he stated.

Commissioner Schinas maintained that what people expect from the EU's health policy exceeds the EU's competence for health as laid out in the EU Treaties.

We have exhausted the last centimetre of EU competence that is in the Treaties, he said, adding that the European Health Union is an effort to create a new regulatory ecosystem beyond the ongoing pandemic and health threats and is a means of bridging the gaps between weak provisions in the Treaties and citizens' expectations for a comprehensive EU health policy.

However, he reiterated that the management of healthcare systems clearly remains a national competence, whereas the EU is trying to increase preparedness for current and future emergencies and health threats, to strengthen solidarity mechanisms and cooperation and to improve health data systems.

Beefing up the mandates of EU health agencies such as the European Medical Agency (EMA) and the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) or setting up the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), are all aimed at ensuring readiness and making the EU better equipped to deal with health emergencies. EU4Health, with a budget of EUR 5.3 billion, is one of the most ambitious-ever programmes for investing in health and was set up in response to COVID-19.

The four latest initiatives proposed by the Commission are aimed at improving cooperation between health authorities in the Member States, stepping up research, ensuring equal quality and affordable healthcare for all Europeans, regardless of where they live, and at making medicines and treatments more affordable.

They include the revision of the EU's pharmaceutical legislation, the Beating Cancer Plan, the proposal for the European Health Data Space and the Health Workforce and Care strategy.

As the EU institution that was the first to call for the creation of a European Health Union and which has been consistent in its calls to strengthen the EU's competence for health, at the September plenary, the EESC adopted opinions on two of the above Commission initiatives.

In the opinion on the European Health Data Space (EHDS), the EESC praised the EHDS proposal as an excellent opportunity to empower individuals to access and control their personal health data. It pointed to the need to mitigate the differences in digital literacy among Member States. Singling out the building of trust as a prerequisite for the EHDS's success, it lent its support to a large-scale public communication campaign to help people understand the benefits of the sharing process and to have trust and confidence in the system.

Trust will be crucial. Citizens need to be comfortable with the use of their data, both in terms of improving public services and of possible use of these data for combating diseases and developing innovative solutions by researchers, said the rapporteur for the opinion, Gonçalo Lobo Xavier. Europeans need to understand that this kind of investment, based on the use of their data, will not jeopardise public health services.

The EESC also adopted the opinion on the Health Workforce and Care Strategy, in which it urged the Commission to set out an ambitious people-centred care strategy that can improve healthcare and long-term care across the EU, ensuring equal quality standards in all Member States or among regions within each country. It also proposed the launch of a European Care Guarantee and put the focus on health workers and their skills, education and working conditions.

Accessing affordable and quality healthcare is the right of all individuals throughout their life cycle. The care system is a litmus test for our European way of life, which needs to be socially just and inclusive. We propose a European care guarantee to ensure that everyone living in the EU has access to affordable and equitable care services. We emphasise the need for a transformative paradigm shift that goes beyond the minimum to create a quality ecosystem for care that leaves no one behind, said the rapporteur for the opinion, Zoe Tzotze-Lanara.

Danko Relić, also the rapporteur for the opinion on the Healthcare Workforce, emphasised the need for an educated, skilled and motivated healthcare workforce, in line with the proposals made by the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Health workers' skills need to be scaled up. These workers must have good working conditions. They must be adequately paid. We need to keep those who work in the health sector there; they need to have decent working hours, enjoy a good work-life balance and have guarantees for their health and safety at work!, Mr Relić maintained.

We need care and healthcare systems that are focused on people, their rights and their needs and that involve people in all relevant discussions, consultations and decisions. If these conditions are met, we will be able to achieve human-centred health coverage for all. Only in this way will we be able to guarantee that all Europeans have equal and sustainable access to healthcare that is affordable, preventive, effective in curing people, and of high quality, Mr Relić concluded.