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Greece vs big pharma at the EU Health Council

The next EU Health Council on 8 December will discuss the “lack of drug availability in Greece”, amid mounting tensions between the government in Athens and the pharmaceutical companies.

Greek health minister Andreas Xanthos will inform his EU counterparts about the recent clash between his government and ROCHE, a Swiss multinational company, over the latter’s decision to withdraw a cancer drug from the market.

ROCHE decided to remove the drug from the prescribed medicines list, meaning that its cost can no longer be covered by the state.

The reason was a measure Athens recently introduced as part of the bailout deal with its international lenders, hitting the pharma industry with a levy of up to 25% obligatory discount for new on-patent drugs to enter the markets.

“The provocative tactics used by ROCHE must be addressed with determination by all the political and social forces of the country and by all the European institutions,” Greek health minister Andreas Xanthos said in a statement, emphasising that the government would not accept any kind of blackmail.

ROCHE then decided to provide about 50 patients with the cancer drug for free; however, it seems the Greek government does not want this to set a precedent.

Strengthening bargaining power

In a letter to the Estonian Presidency, the Greek health ministry noted that it was “well-known that the market in the drug sector causes problems in several member states”.

Referring to the ROCHE case, Athens insists that the rest of EU member states should be informed of what happened and coordinate their actions.

“There is a need to develop strong and systematic synergies in the policy of the pharmaceutical area particularly on bargaining power in order to prevent unfair trade practices that are especially inappropriate in this very sensitive area,” the Greek delegation claimed, adding that the case goes beyond narrow national interests.

Last May, health ministers of Malta, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal held their own meeting and signed the “Valletta Declaration”. Ireland recently joined this group.

The main objective is to enhance their cooperation and jointly negotiate with the pharmaceutical industry on drug pricing.

According to Xanthos, official negotiations are expected to begin in January. The countries will be divided into four pairs and each pair will negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for new drugs in a group of treatments.

Similar agreements have already been made by several EU countries; Benelux with Austria (Beneluxa), Bulgaria and Romania as well as Visegrád, with Croatia and Lithuania (Visegrad +2).

Bulgaria, which takes on the EU Council Presidency at the start of 2018, will most probably focus on drugs’ shortage, which is more related to parallel trade than drugs’ pricing itself. However, it’s not clear whether it could be linked to the pricing as well.

But Bulgaria will be followed the second semester of 2018 by Austria, which is expected to mount pressure on the pharma industry on drugs’ pricing.