A group of countries from Central and Eastern Europe called on Tuesday for a the creation of a new EU fund to help cover health care costs for Ukrainian refugees.
The joint proposal, backed by 11 member countries, calls on the Commission to initiate the creation of a dedicated EU-level fund to cover the “huge financial effort” of providing health care for Ukrainians who have fled the Russian invasion. Those funds would be used to cover health insurance costs and other outlays.
Polish Health Minister Adam Niedzielski told a meeting of EU health ministers in Brussels that the unprecedented scale and speed of arrivals from Ukraine was putting health systems under increasing pressure, as countries cover the cost of treating refugees through their own health systems.
“We estimate that in Poland, monthly spending per 1 million refugees can reach almost €50 million or even €70 million,” Niedzielski told the assembled ministers. “Right now we have over 2 million refugees so you can easily calculate the scale of the problem.”
Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia — all of which have per capita gross domestic product below the EU average — backed the proposal.
“The fact that our system is going to be overwhelmed — that’s clear to everyone. We’re expecting some problems in the cancer wards, emergency wards and the burn and trauma wards,” said Slovak Health Minister Vladimír Lengvarský.
Capitals largely backed the proposal. Greek Health Minister Thanos Plevris said Greece had experience in hosting refugees over the past 15 years, and that he was in favor of finding new financing mechanisms to support countries at the edge of the EU.
Some countries introduced a note of caution, however. Aki Lindén, Finnish minister of family affairs and social services, said that compensation should be drawn from “existing EU funds and resources.” Austria and Denmark also referenced the need to make use of existing budgets.
German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said that he backed the “spirit and word” of the proposal, but that the details would need to be looked at.
An EU diplomat said that the money might be drawn from the Commission’s €5.3 billion health program to help fund vaccinations.
Ukraine suffers from high rates of infectious diseases like HIV and tuberculosis. Earlier in the year and before the Russian invasion, the country saw an outbreak of polio linked to low rates of vaccination against the disease. COVID-19 vaccination rates are also low, with around a third of the population fully vaccinated.
The EU’s disease control agency has called on countries hosting refugees to help ensure that gaps in childhood vaccination, including against polio and measles, are filled.
During the health ministers’ meeting, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides announced that the EU would distribute nearly 300,000 vaccines against diphtheria and tetanus.
The health commissioner also said that it was key to ensure that national health systems have sufficient capacity to absorb the influx of patients.
An estimated 3.5 million people have left Ukraine for the EU since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Last week, the Commission announced it would release €3.4 billion in recovery funds to help support spending by member countries on housing, education, health, employment and child care for refugees.
Estonia’s Health Minister Tanel Kiik said that while he welcomed the Commission’s move to free up existing funds, this “simply is not enough.”
Refugees already made up 2 percent of the Estonian population and if people kept arriving the estimated cost could total nearly 4 percent of the country’s GDP, an amount that “exceeds the free resources of the state budget,” said Kiik. “We need additional resources,” he added.
Earlier this month, the Commission said it would reserve 10,000 beds in hospitals throughout the bloc specifically for Ukrainian patients, and set up “triage hubs” to vet patients and send them to available hospitals. Lauterbach said the hubs were working well and helping to move people with war injuries to hospitals where they can receive the right treatment.