TCS Daily

Europe's Misdiagnosis

By Tomasz Teluk - February 2, 2005 12:00 AM

When it comes to health care, it doesnt matter if theres a crisis or not in Europe. The European Union does not want to change. The state will remain the main actor. 


Politicians say they need more money to provide all citizens the same free service in every country. Bureaucrats promote such slogans as: equality, solidarity and accessibility instead of thinking about how to act effectively, rationally and cheaply. They are clinging to the state healthcare monopoly.


A recent one-day conference sponsored by European Voice on Healthcare: Is Europe Getting Better?, has convinced me that the situation in Europe is getting alarmingly worse. Every patient knows that the EU social system is in crisis, but politicians are saying that European healthcare is competitive with the US system. Sadly, the debate is not factual, but ideological.


The star attraction at the event, Markos Kyprianou, the EUs health commissioner, underlined that providing healthcare service is one of the main functions of member states. The European Commission, he said, is working not on healthcare reforms but on the problem of mobility: how to provide Germans with the same level of free service during their stay in France or Poland. The only thing we can expect from the institution is more market regulations to legalize international redistribution among member states.


Kyprianou has concluded that the Commission can support the development of European healthcare in building institutions financed by the state. Never mind that the main problem facing the sector is in spending. The old EU-15 countries are spending 8.6 percent GDP on health while the new ten member  states only 5.6 percent. But according to Kyprianou, ratification of the new EU constitution is a good idea because the treaty also includes rights to healthcare and protection of health among the fundamental rights of European citizens.  


Willy Palm, director of the International Association of Mutual Health Funds, made similar arguments. Palm is convinced that Europe is driven by values of social solidarity, common equality and access to healthcare. Healthcare, he claimed, is not regular market but has a special social character and does not need reform towards a free-market style.


Many speakers reflected the still predominant EU faith in the strong redistributive power of the state. Imre Holo, Hungarys deputy secretary of state for health, argued that the Commission should redistribute more money toHungary. Dr. Octavi Quintana Trias from the Commission argued for more centralization and control in science. In his opinion decentralization of medicinal research is not good for patients.


There were a few voices of reason. In the opinion of Mars Di Bartolomeo, Luxemburgs minister of health and social security, the key is to activate the patients role in the healthcare. Di Bartolomeo suggested that competition between national healthcare systems is good for patients. In short, he argued, the more knowledge there is in a society, the healthier its people are. For example, patient access to medical information about treatment and pharmaceutical technology is crucial.


A representative from GlaxoSmithKline said the market was not to blame for the ineffectiveness of social systems. In fact, it is the lack of a free-market in healthcare that has created the crisis. The speaker reminded everyone that global competition in medicine is strong and that, in a few years, China and India could achieve a higher level of medical knowledge and technology than the European Union. Many in the audience preferred not to hear this last sentence


Part of their problem is that they rely on the idea that collective healthcare is somehow free. In fact, the government provides the most expensive medical service we can imagine. The state monopoly de facto does not fulfill slogans of equality, solidarity and accessibility. Government healthcare limits patients rights and access to modern treatment and the newest achievements in medicine. Patients are forced to settle for ineffective service and low quality products.


Government-owned healthcare has nothing to do with equality, and in some cases the best treatment is reserved for politicians and elites. Others must pay bribes to be treated better, but people who are honest and refuse to see corrupt physicians are discriminated against. Finally, government healthcare removes the individual responsibility of each patient for his own health.


In fact, the state is too weak to guarantee every citizen good quality treatment. Europeans should not wait for the bankruptcy of social security and liberalize their healthcare market as soon as possible. Only the free market will avert the coming crisis in healthcare, not the European Commission or any other governmental institution.


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