Patient access to medicines across the European Union is currently very unequal and, while improving this will require a long-term approach rather than short-term budget fixes, it does not mean new legislation from Brussels, the European Commission has said.

To be able to pay for much-needed drug innovations, EU states need to learn from each other, said EU Industry Commissioner Guenter Verheugen. He added: “the objective is not to spend more, but to spend more intelligently.”

The Commissioner was speaking in Brussels at the first meeting of the EU Pharmaceutical Forum, a high-level advisory group set up examine the effects of pharmaceutical innovation on EU national health systems and make recommendations on: drug pricing and reimbursement, the use of Relative Effectiveness Assessment (REA) for new products; and how patients should receive information about the drugs they are prescribed.

“Europe is no longer the pharmacy of the world. We need to look urgently at the structural issues affecting the competitiveness of the industry and respond to these challenges,” he said. The only way forward is through close cooperation between all member states, the European Parliament and all other stakeholders, including the industry, he added, and warned: “isolated action by any of us is doomed to fail.”

Turning to patient information, the Commissioner described the current situation as unacceptable. “If you can speak English and use a computer, you already have as much information on pharmaceuticals as you could possibly want. What you get, however, are often Internet sites of dubious quality or even sources from outside the EU offering promotional material rather than information,” he said.

The pharmaceutical industry should have the right to product non-promotional information for patients about medicines and diseases and to publish it, he told the meeting. This information could be provided on a self-regulatory basis but subject to a “robust” system of control and quality assurance “without creating a big bureaucracy,” he suggested.

All 25 EU states are devoting more resources to REA, which helps to identify the most valuable medicines, both in terms of clinical efficacy and cost-effectiveness, and to set a fair price for them, EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou told the Forum. He called for EU-wide procedures to be put in place speedily to share best practices and help improve REA accuracy.

However, before the meeting, one Member of the European Parliament suggested that the member states would block any changes to REA in order to keep costs down. They would also seek to avoid any changes in pricing and information because they want to retain control in these areas, said German MEP Jorgo Chatzimarkakis.

He suggested that a common EU body should be set up to conduct REAs, or for various national bodies to specialize in different drugs; for example; the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence could concentrate on the cost-effectiveness of drugs for cardiovascular diseases, while Germany’s IQWIG would focus on new diabetes drugs.

Dr Chatzimarkakis also attacked current European pricing policies, stating that in no other market do states decide prices as they do for the pharmaceutical industry. It was “totally illogical” that new medicines are forced on to the market at low prices while blockbuster drugs have high prices, he said, adding: “the system does not work - firms and industry are leaving Europe because of these market barriers.”

Also ahead of the meeting, the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations had stressed the need for the Forum to find the right balance between rewarding innovation, providing patient access to medicines and managing costs of social security systems in Europe. After the discussions, a spokesman for the industry group expressed disappointment to PharmaTimes that more progress had not been made.

The next meeting of the Pharmaceutical Forum is scheduled to be held in June 2007.