As Europeans face a public health crisis, we should increase patient accessibility by abolishing VAT on the most essential of goods, writes Bill Wirtz.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put health policy back into the hearts and minds of European decision-makers. Before the outbreak, Europe had been in a debate about drug pricing, but it only involved the upper echelon of political institutions. Often blamed are pharmaceutical companies, as well as a lack of price transparency. But having a closer looks at the costs of drugs shows that one of the main drivers for high costs is sales taxes on medicines.
Informed patients will know that all but one European country charge VAT on over-the-counter (OTC) medicine and prescription medicine. Germany charges as much as 19% VAT on both types of medicines, while Denmark ranks the highest, with rates at 25% - that is a fifth of the total price for a drug!
There is only one country that does not charge VAT on prescription or over-the-counter drugs: Malta. Luxembourg (3% each) and Spain (4% each) also show that modest VAT rates on drugs are not a crazy idea but something millions of Europeans already benefit from. Sweden and the UK both charge 0% VAT on prescription medicine, yet 25% and 20% respectively on OTC.
One of the significant roadblocks towards more patient access to drugs is the unfair tax policies of some EU member states. Before talking about eroding intellectual property rights and price setting across the block, we should discuss whether we should have a VAT on medicines.
Especially on prescription medicine, where cancer drugs can reach substantial price levels, VAT rates of up to 25% significantly burden patients and their health insurance. On prescription medicine, there is little sense in first charging value-added tax, and then have national health insurance providers pick up the tab. As for OTC medicine, the implication that just because it isn't prescribed, it therefore isn't an essential good, is a blindspot of policy-makers.
Many OTC meds, ranging from drug headache pain relief, heartburn medicine, lip treatments, respiratory remedies, or dermatological creams are not only essential medicines for millions of Europeans; they often act as preventative care. The more we tax these goods, the more we are burdening MDs with non-essential visits.
Following the example of Malta, European countries should lower their VAT rates to 0% on all medicines. The purpose of VAT is to take a cut out of commercial activity, making sure that all commercial transactions pay what is considered their fair share, even those businesses who traditionally don't pay any company taxes. However, regarding the sale of medicine as a purely commercial transaction, from the standpoint of patients, misses the point. Millions of patients need specific prescription medicine every day, and others rely on the help of over-the-counter drugs to relieve pain or treat problems that do not require professional medical attention.
It is time for European nations to agree on a binding Zero VAT agreement on medicine or at least a cap at 5%, which would reduce drug prices in the double digits, increase accessibility, and create a fairer Europe.
Bill Wirtz is the Senior Policy Analyst for the Consumer Choice Center. He tweets @wirtzbill
Commission approves German scheme to compensate accommodation providers in the field of child and youth education for damages suffered due to the coronavirus outbreak
The European Commission approved, under EU state aid rules, a German scheme to compensate accommodation providers for child and youth education for the loss of revenue caused by the coronavirus outbreak. The public support will take the form of direct grants. The scheme will compensate up to 60% of the loss of revenues incurred by eligible beneficiaries in the period between the beginning of the lockdown (which started on different dates across the regional states) and 31 July 2020 when their accommodation facilities had to be closed due to the restrictive measures implemented in Germany.
When calculating the loss of revenue, any reductions in costs resulting from income generated during the lockdown and any possible financial aid granted or actually paid out by the state (and in particular granted under scheme SA.58464) or third parties to cope with the consequences of the coronavirus outbreak will be deducted. At the central government level, facilities eligible to apply will have at their disposal a budget of up to €75 million.
However, these funds are not earmarked exclusively for this scheme. In addition, regional authorities (at Länder or local level) may also make use of this scheme from the local budgets. In any event, the scheme ensures that the same eligible costs cannot be compensated twice by different administrative levels. The Commission assessed the measure under Article 107(2)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which enables the Commission to approve state aid measures granted by member states to compensate specific companies or specific sectors for the damages caused by exceptional occurrences, such as the coronavirus outbreak.
The Commission found that the German scheme will compensate damages that are directly linked to the coronavirus outbreak. It also found that the measure is proportionate, as the envisaged compensation does not exceed what is necessary to make good the damages. The Commission therefore concluded that the scheme is in line with EU state aid rules.
More information on actions taken by the Commission to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here. The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.59228 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website.
Commission approves Austrian measures to support rail freight and passenger operators affected by the coronavirus outbreak
The European Commission has approved, under EU state aid rules, two Austrian measures supporting the rail freight sector and one measure supporting the rail passenger sector in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. The two measures supporting the rail freight sector will ensure increased public support to further encourage the shift of freight traffic from road to rail, and the third measure introduces temporary relief for rail operators providing passenger services on a commercial basis.
The Commission found that the measures are beneficial for the environment and for mobility as they support rail transport, which is less polluting than road transport, while also decreasing road congestion. The Commission also found that the measures are proportionate and necessary to achieve the objective pursued, namely to support the modal shift from road to rail whilst not leading to undue competition distortions. Finally, the waiver of infrastructure access charges provided for in the second and third measures described above is in line with the recently adopted Regulation (EU) 2020/1429.
This Regulation allows and encourages member states to temporarily authorize the reduction, waiver or deferral of charges for accessing rail infrastructure below direct costs. As a result, the Commission concluded that the measures comply with EU state aid rules, in particular the 2008 Commission Guidelines on state aid for railway undertakings (the Railway Guidelines).
Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: “The measures approved today will enable the Austrian authorities to support not only rail freight transport operators, but also commercial passenger operators in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. This will contribute to maintaining their competitiveness compared to other modes of transport, in line with the EU Green Deal objective. We continue working with all member states to ensure that national support measures can be put in place as quickly and effectively as possible, in line with EU rules.”
The full press release is available online.
Commission approves €5.5 million Estonian scheme to support companies active in tourism sector affected by coronavirus outbreak
The European Commission has approved a €5.5 million Estonian scheme to support companies active in the tourism sector affected by the coronavirus outbreak. The measure was approved under the State aid Temporary Framework. The public support will take the form of direct grants and will be open to accommodation providers, travel agencies, tourism attraction operators, tourism service providers, international coach service providers, conference organizers and tourist guides.
The purpose of the measure is to mitigate the sudden liquidity shortages that these companies are facing because of the restrictive measures imposed by the government to limit the spread of the virus. The Commission found that the Estonian measure is in line with the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. In particular, the support (i) will not exceed €800,000 per company; and (ii) will be granted no later than 30 June 2021.
The Commission concluded that the measure is necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a member state, in line with Article 107(3)(b) TFEU and the conditions of the Temporary Framework. On this basis, the Commission approved the measure under EU state aid rules. More information on the Temporary Framework and other actions taken by the Commission to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here.
The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.59338 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.