Health: the hidden priority of the European Commission?

Nov 2, 2017 | By Agnes Brandt | Posted in Incisive Health

The European Commission's Work Programme 2018 was announced last week.

The European Commission’s Work Programme 2018 announced last week sets out a targeted agenda for completing its ten priorities to, in the words of First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, "ensure that Europe's focus remains firmly on the things where European action has most added value.”  

Is health one of them? Not at first sight: there is, for example, no explicit focus on health in the Work Programme. But the Programme is of course never intended to be a comprehensive plan of action. And hidden behind the headlines, work on health will progress on multiple fronts in 2018.

First, the 2017 Work Programme’s focus on health technology assessment (HTA) will continue. Among the post-2020 policy options being considered are voluntary long-term cooperation, cooperation through the collection, sharing and use of common tools and data, cooperation on the production of joint relative effectiveness assessments reports (REA) and – going even further – joint full HTA reports. A proposal is expected to be published before the end of the year, with DG Sante hoping that the legislative process could start in early 2018.

The proposal could signal a significant boost in HTA cooperation across Europe, building on existing EU initiatives at the policy and technical levels. But there is much policy detail still to be considered. Access to medicines, the reduction of administrative burden, transparency and patient involvement are only some of the points under discussion among those awaiting the proposal in Brussels. MEPs too have a longstanding interest in the area, and will want to make their presence felt. For all those who want to engage in the development of this policy area, 2018 will prove an opportune time.

Second, 2018 will see more concrete steps on eHealth. The Digital Health Society Declaration (DSM) adopted at the recent summit in Tallinn is only the first step, according to the Estonian Presidency of the EU, and digital health is expected to feature in the December Council conclusions.

For its part, the Commission has been busy preparing the ground for some more substantial work in the field too. Following-up on the mid-term review of the Digital Single Market Strategy and a public consultation that ended earlier this month, the Commission is currently drafting a communication setting out possible steps to trigger research and investment in eHealth. The draft text is expected to explore issues like secure access, data sharing, personalised health and care, citizen empowerment, and research and investment – and will trigger much debate in the year ahead, which those with an interest in the area will be keen to inform.

And although the Work Programme does not specifically reference the above, it does – most interestingly – make explicit reference to a Joint Action Plan on national vaccination policies. Ostensibly, and to align with the Work Programme’s wider aims, this is to make Europe’s internal market “deeper and fairer” – but the Commission also wants to support Member States tackle outbreaks of infectious disease, and support the better implementation of immunisation programmes. Commission President Jean Claude Juncker’s sudden interest in vaccines has provoked strong reactions from MEPs, with even the most ardent supporters of vaccines seeking more information before offering support to any compulsory measures. Expect this issue to run and run in 2018.

Superficially, therefore, the Work Programme may suggest that health is dropping down the policy agenda in 2018. But with HTA reform, eHealth, and vaccination very much on table, there is plenty to keep Brussels health teams busy next year – and beyond.

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