David Brennan, AstraZeneca’s chief executive, has been confirmed as the new chairman of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

Speaking at the group's annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas, Mr Brennan, who takes over from Merck & Co CEO Richard Clark, called on industry colleagues, “policymakers, health advocacy organisations and new, nontraditional partners” to promote policies that expand access to affordable health coverage, address the burden of chronic disease and close the gaps in health care quality while fostering continued innovation”. He also noted that he is taking on the role at a time when “there’s a crisis going on”.

Since the onset of the downturn in the USA alone, over 4.4 million people have lost their jobs and, in many instances, their health insurance, Mr Brennan noted. He added that “it’s not hyperbole to say that before this recession is over millions more will join the 47 million other Americans” who do not have coverage.

He quoted figures from a Kaiser Family Foundation study which shows that in 1970 US healthcare spending stood at $365 per resident, or 7.2% of gross domestic product. By 2016, it will rise to well over $12,000, “an unbelievable and unsustainable” 19.6% of GDP.

To address the problem needs a debate” that features fresh thinking and open-mindedness - not partisan bickering”, Mr Brennan said, and “only respectful, give-and-take discussions will produce the reforms we need”. So what needs to be done?

Mr Brennan argues that “first, we’ve got to have quality care with an emphasis on outcomes” and “reduce healthcare disparities”. Also “we’ve got to preserve what is good about the current system”, he said, “and in my view, that includes the strong relationship between physician and patient… prevention and access are not just about a pill”.

Noting Barack Obama’s calls to find a cure for cancer, he applauded the president’s views but noted that “we can’t get far down that road without continued world-class innovation”. He said that “our industry can’t get there without the government [and] the government won’t get there without us. Quite frankly, we need each other”.

Steady progress not spectacular breakthroughs
Mr Brennan said that “contrary to the Hollywood-like scenarios, our battle with cancer isn’t so much about spectacular breakthroughs as it is about steady, incremental progress”. However for that to continue “requires policies that are more conducive to the medical innovation that is the genesis and cornerstone of our industry…we need an environment that includes strong, well-defined intellectual property rights”.

He added that a “strong, well-functioning” Food and Drug Administration is needed “but an understaffed and under-funded FDA is an agency in crisis”. He went on to say that “we’re working hard for increased appropriations to the FDA so that it is recognised as a watchdog with a full set of teeth”.

Mr Brennan concluded by saying that “it is a good time for PhRMA”, because “current healthcare debates give us the opportunity to make our case - and to make it very publicly”.