New health Commissioner calls for more innovation and improved health and food safety

02 Oct 2014 | News
Vytenis Andriukaitis pledges to widen access to innovative healthcare across the EU and to keep the highest health and food safety standards in a more equal ‘Health Union’

The Lithuanian Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, who is due to pick up the health portfolio, avoided making any policy commitments during his parliamentary hearing this week, but he did  pledge to take a more holistic view of healthcare in Europe.

Rather than always being seen as cost and an overhead, expenditure on health will be viewed as an investment - in human resources and in the EU’s future. And the cardiac surgeon and former prisoner of the Soviet gulag, acknowledged the importance of knowledge and innovation in healthcare, saying there is a  need for more investment.

As health Commissioner, Andriukaitis said he will be urging Member States to implement the cross-border health directive as soon as possible, adding that the Commission will, “enforce infringement procedures” against countries that do not.

At the same time, the Commission should put in place mechanisms for evaluating and assessing the performance of health systems, and implement e-health infrastructures across the member states.

Healthcare needs to go digital

The basket of technologies that fall under electronic health hold the potential to reduce costs and significantly increase the efficiency of health systems. But for now, “the health sector is lagging behind in terms of ICT integration,” Andriukaitis noted. However, the EU’s flagship initiative, Digital Europe, “offers a bright future for e-health and mobile health.”

Integrating ICT and healthcare will unblock numerous bottlenecks which currently make the interoperability of health systems across the EU an impossibility. Mobile applications can be used for better patient monitoring and the data generated can be used for disease prevention and cost reduction.

“The Commission must invest in innovation in order to reduce the costs of healthcare and we should encourage member states to access available funding for research for preventative medicine,” said Andriukaitis.

Cross-border implementation of innovative technologies could reduce the east-west divide in terms of quality and access to innovative therapies and procedures. “The Health Union is a nice idea and it is worth discussing and pursuing this possibility,” Andruikaitis said.

Genetically modified foods

Several MEPs were very interested in Andriukaitis’ position on genetically modified (GM) foods in the context of the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP). The Commissioner-to-be said he is willing to make a decision in favour of GM foods but only if there is enough supporting scientific evidence.

But given that 19 member states oppose GM foods, he will also have to take into account the principle of subsidiarity. “Opposing countries will be able to keep their status,” Andriukaitis said, but he did not explain how the obvious clash between the subsidiarity principle and the single market can be avoided.

The commissioner-designate said he wants to ensure that research on the impact of GM foods is carried out by independent bodies. Also, he pledged to review the entire decision-making process for GM foods in the first six months of his term.

Health and food safety and the TTIP

Over the past year, the TTIP talks have prompted many criticisms, especially over the lack of transparency of the negotiations between the Commission and the US Government.

When asked about the possible effects of the TTIP on health and food safety, Andruiukaitis said he will not cave in to any compromise on the topic. “Lowering health and food safety standards is non-negotiable,” he said.

This was perhaps his most clear-cut commitment during the entire hearing and certainly he managed to reassure the MEPs who are worried about the matter

The hearing touched upon other important issues, such as the increased brain drain from Eastern Europe, animal cloning, the review of health claims policy scheduled for 2015, stem cell research, and increasing scepticism against vaccination.

The Commissioner-designate agreed that poorer EU countries need to reform their healthcare systems to discourage healthcare professionals leaving for better paid positions in the West. There is, “a need to start closing the salaries gap, as well as providing better career opportunities for healthcare professionals,” Andriukaitis said.

On the issue of allowing the animal cloning as the basis of breeding programmes for livestock, he asked for caution and a thorough review.

Andriukaitis also argued that the Commission needs to work with Member States to increase the overall public trust in science.

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