Health Policy: The Role of the EU

Germany is responsible for the design of its health system. Which topics are still controlled by the European Union

Around 400 million people in the European Union (EU) will be called on from May 23 to 26 to elect a new parliament. In Germany, the election will take place next Sunday. Although the member states themselves are responsible for shaping their health systems, health issues are on the agenda for many parties - albeit not in the first place.

So what health issues is Europe steering? "The EU has a significant influence on health policy," says Professor Thomas Gerlinger, health and political scientist at Bielefeld University. "If a problem can be solved better at EU level than at national level, the European Union can take action." And that's not so rarely the case. For example, in the approval of drugs, in the fight against diseases or drugs, and in health protection and prevention. To protect Europeans, there are action plans - for example to combat antimicrobial resistance or against the skepticism about vaccinations.

It is also thanks to the EU that patients in other European countries receive medical treatment at the expense of statutory health insurance companies. And EU directives regulate the Europe-wide recognition of health professions - such as doctors and nurses.

European Parliament, Council of Ministers, Court of Justice

The 751 members of the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers, in which ministers from the member states are represented, decide on EU laws. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ensures that European law is also complied with in the member states. For example, its judgments affect national health systems.

Two significant examples: In 2003, the Court of Justice classified the on-call medical service in its entirety as working time. That meant a success for doctors in the Member States and additional expenses for hospitals. And two and a half years ago, the Court of Justice allowed EU mail-order pharmacies to give German customers discounts on prescription drugs. German pharmacists who have to adhere to the drug price regulation applicable in this country and are not allowed to give price reductions have since been at a disadvantage compared to foreign senders.

Competition in the internal market

As in the case of drug discounts in Germany, the ECJ's rulings, which are friendly to the domestic market, often meet with criticism. "The EU is primarily an economic project," says expert Thomas Gerlinger. The focus is on the creation of a common market - i.e. the free movement of goods, services, people and capital. EU requirements and the law of the member states are often in conflict.

Nevertheless: "Europe is important - especially when it comes to health," says Dr. Peter Liese, the CDU member of the European Parliament and health policy spokesman for the EPP group. "With many problems you get stuck at the national level," says the doctor. There are now uniform EU safety standards for drugs and medical devices. Most of the drugs are already approved centrally by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

Europe-wide counterfeit protection for medicines

"We have also adopted European rules for the monitoring of these drugs and a directive on protection against counterfeit drugs," says Peter Liese. Counterfeit medicines are becoming an increasing problem worldwide. It is therefore necessary for Europe to act uniformly and protect its citizens.

Cross-border fight against cancer

Peter Liese and his parliamentary group want to work in the next legislative period in particular to fight cancer. "Experts say that it can be achieved that in 20 years no one in Europe will die of cancer," said the MEP. But that is only possible if scientists in Europe work together, more money is poured into research and the Europe-wide cancer registries are compatible. "In order to enable patients to have more specialized treatment methods and to save them unnecessary travel, digitization should also be promoted more strongly in the European Union," says Peter Liese.

Progressive digitization

The SPD MEP Tiemo Wölken also wants to promote digitization. "The secure transmission of health data in the digital single market must be given in order to receive appropriate medical treatment in other EU countries," says the health policy spokesman for the European SPD. For him, the subject of data protection and security in the healthcare system and the cooperation between the various national IT systems are high on the agenda.