The European Union (EU) is being put at risk because millions of patients in the region cannot afford their medicines, a leading EU politician has warned.

A consequence of the global financial crisis is that millions of Europeans lack access to treatment, but problems of medicines affordability and the long-term sustainability of public drug spending preceded the crisis in the EU, a seminar at the European Parliament, hosted by the Group for the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats (S&D) in the Parliament, has heard.

"It's unacceptable that millions can't afford the best lifesaving treatment in the EU. More fiscal solidarity has not led to more general solidarity. We are putting the EU at risk," warned S&D Spanish Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Alejandro Cercas.

European governments are using the economic crisis to cut public spending across the board, said Mr Cercas, and he also condemned the arbitrary nature of the spending cuts. "Lifesaving medicines should have never made it into any cut list. Healthcare systems should be at the very bottom of the austerity list, not as a default option," he stated.

The European Parliament is becoming a battlefield between the public interest and Big Pharma, claimed Bulgarian MEP Antoniya Parvanova. "As the Parliament is debating three key directives related to public health - clinical trials, medical devices and price transparency - EU policymakers must show that they are on the side of the people by putting their interests ahead of the industry's profits," urged Ms Parvanova, who is a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).

Despite having several Big Pharma firms based in Ireland, the cost of many drugs in the country is up to three times the price paid in other European countries, added another ALDE member, Irish MEP Marian Harkin.

"Even if, to a large extent, the Irish healthcare system still functions reasonably well, the exceptional price of medicines is a huge burden on the individual and on the healthcare system that needs to be lifted,” she said.

Portuguese MEP Maria do Ceu Patrao Neves called for increased moves to boost research and innovation as a way of easing Europe's problems of medicines access. "Research and innovation will make the production of medicines increasingly sustainable and affordable, bringing prices down so people for whom medicines have become a luxury regain the lifesaving access denied today," she said.

"In addition, a decisive and smart boost to research and innovation of medicines will help make them more effective, widening the diseases they cover," added Ms do Ceu Patrao Neves, who is a member of the European People's Party (EPP) group in the Parliament.

A leading nongovernmental organisation (NGO) urged the EU to "step in and take the lead in the development of new models of biomedical innovation that promote both needs-driven innovation and affordable access to R&D outcomes." 

"Pharma companies have gradually shifted their business model from focusing on therapeutic innovation towards marketing, wider patenting, increased litigation against competitors and the development of 'me too' medicines of little therapeutic advantage," claimed Tessel Mellema of Health Action International (HAI). Moreover, in cases where new drugs do deliver innovative therapeutic value, their prices are sometimes too high for today's shrinking health budgets, he added.

A number of speakers called for the EU's national competent authorities to have greater powers to negotiate prices when procuring medicines, and Greek MEP Nikos Chrysogelos, of the Green/European Free Alliance (EFA) group, said that thorough cost-benefit assessments have to be made the norm, if a sustainable and capable healthcare model is to be rebuilt. In Greece, more than a million people do not have access to treatment, he said.

The present EU pharmaceutical model is "dominated by massive marketing costs, poor results in innovation and very high prices, artificially maintained," and the economic crisis “has made the situation untenable,” claimed David Hammerstein of the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue.

"A European policy better equipped to fulfil public healthcare needs would include: - closer coordination among European countries in the public procurement of medicines; - more flexible rules on intellectual property rights (IPR) and antimonopoly legislation, both to promote generic competition and to boost imports; - rules for social conditionality in the use of scientific results publicly funded; and - stricter regulation on transparency to better evaluate the real efficacy and safety of pharmaceuticals," said Mr Hammerstein.

While the purchasing of medicines by groups of EU member states would be against the rules of the single market, maybe the rules should be changed, he suggested, adding: “we are talking about lifesaving medicines for people who don’t get treatment.”