The unpaid debts of European healthcare systems owed to pharmaceutical companies reportedly stands at about 12 billion euros, and half of that is a result of Spain having problems in paying its bills.

The problem was addressed by Bruno Strigini, president of Europe/Canada at Merck & Co at The Economist's Pharma Summit summit in London last week. He said that 6 billion euros is outstanding in Spain and a further 4 billion euros is owed to medical device firms.

Mr Strigini claimed that the Spanish government was trying to resolve the situation but added that "it's clearly an issue. How are we going to recover the money that is owed"? He went on to say that "we're right in the middle of these discussions [but] I can't see how we can get to a solution that satisfies us without the help of international institutions", such as the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.

"Things are getting rapidly worse," said Richard Bergstrom, director general of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, who told Reuters that his organisation puts the total outstanding European debt for medicines at between 12-15 billion euros, up from around an earlier estimate of 10 billion euros.

Mr Bergstrom told the news agency that nearly all of those unpaid bills are in four countries - Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain. The latter's government has pledged to pay the money owed by its regional governments  to pharma.

Last week in Paris, Sanofi chief executive Chris Viehbacher told PharmaTimes World News that his firm has not seen any significant deterioration in payments from southern Europe since the problem of non-payment emerged in Greece last year. That problem was partly resolved when the Greek authorities tried to clear some debts by issuing pharma companies with government bonds and this could be a path taken by Spain.