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Eastern EU countries call for help over refugee health costs

A group of countries from central and eastern Europe has called for a the creation of a new EU fund to help cover healthcare 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 on Tuesday 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 are backing 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. 

German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach backed the proposal. “We’re going to be looking at the details, but in terms of the spirit and the word, this is what we need now,” said Lauterbach. 

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.

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.

Additional reporting by Sarah-Taïssir Bencharif.

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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