Juncker plays poker with pills

2 October 2014

Juncker plays poker with pills

The new president of the European Commission is putting the fox in charge of the geese. He wants to see policy on medicines (and the interests that go along with it) removed from the portfolio of the Commissioner for Health, and instead to have the Commissioner for Internal Market and Industry take over responsibility for the pill trade. Whether this decision stemmed from effective lobbying we’ll never know, but the fact that Jean-Claude Juncker is playing poker with pills is clear.

By Renske Leijten, SP spokeswoman on health care

Conflict of interests

In 2009 it was decided that policy on medicines belonged in the portfolio of the Commissioner for Health, who is responsible for the promotion and protection of health and of patients’ safety. Important matters such as good information for patients, registration of side effects and test results, but also pricing of pharmaceuticals, should not be subordinated to commercial interests. Because medicines aren’t the same as sweets, it’s extremely unwise to leave them to the rules of the internal market, in which the focus is primarily on competition. There already exists enormous pressure on EMA (the European Medicines Agency), which is in charge of access of medicines to the European market, to give Big Pharma whatever it wants. Conflict of interests is a big problem, as the European Parliament also recognises. In addition, we are seeing in recent times in the pharmaceutical world a great many often hostile takeovers, a concentration of power against which public regulation and public power must take a stand.

28 European organisations are against

The interests involved are extensive, according to medical specialists, pensioners’ groups, patients’ organisations and many others. Fully twenty-eight European umbrella groups, including those representing doctors, pharmacists, students, patients, hospitals and care facilities have issued a call to Juncker - with ‘bewilderment and concern’ - to reverse this decision.

Stalemate, thanks to Juncker

The European Parliament has also heavily criticised Juncker’s decision. A number of letters have been addressed to him by MEPs, including one from each of the spokespeople. During Polish candidate Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska’s hearing, held today in the European Parliament, the matter was again on the agenda. The problem is that the Polish candidate hid behind Juncker’s decision itself and said that she could exercise no further influence. This threatens to bring about a stalemate which can only be broken by means of pressure on Juncker.

Worldwide turnover almost 1000 miljard euro

Medicines aren’t sweets to be freely obtained. How this is regulated in each member state is will be in terms of reimbursement and access to health care, while it is a doctor who will prescribe these medicines. There is a reasonable regulation when it comes to the test phase of a medicine, its side effects and active ingredients. We know that the pharmaceutical industry isn’t enthusiastic about transparency, and that pharmaceutical corporations are certainly not charitable concerns. The sector’s interests can be seen from its global turnover of a thousand billion 1000 billion euros, with a 20% profit margin. Of these profits at most 15% goes to the development of new medicines. A third goes to the shareholders, while another third goes on promotion: bogus conferences, sponsored refresher courses, advertising and visits to doctors.

Transferring these interests to the Internal Market will lead to even less transparency over approval of medicines. Keeping research results secret on the basis of competition considerations harms both doctors and patients. There are too many examples of newly introduced medicines which were insufficiently safe with respect to already existing medication for the same complaint, as the Vioxx tragedy showed. Money for research into new medicines too often goes, furthermore, into copies of drugs for illnesses for which medication already exists.

What is the health Minister doing?

The twenty-eight organisations have had no response from Juncker, but what is Dutch Public Health Minister Edith Schippers doing? She also received the call to make her views known. Does she believe that the pharmaceutical sector acts in the public interest? Does she want less transparency in the interests of protecting commercial interests? Does Schippers put the importance of health care first, or does she favour the interests of Big Pharma? Today we’ll know whether Schippers is prepared to call Juncker to account for his behaviour.

Today what we want to hear from Schippers is: ‘Don’t play poker with pills.’

This opinion article first appeared in the original Dutch on The Post Online.

You are here