New German Minister of Health is Jens Spahn

by Jonas Wolframm
What can we expect from him?

Who is Germany's next Minister of Health – and what can we expect from him?

On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel has finally announced her staff picks for the six CDU-led Federal Ministries at a special party convention in Berlin. In case you missed it, according to the coalition treaty the Christian Democrats will get control over the Chancellery, the Ministry of Economics, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Ministry of Education and Science.

Yes, we are finally there – after nearly seven months Germany is getting close to having a non-provisional government again. After the announcement, two personae immediately sparked the attention of the German media. Firstly, Anja Karliczek – an appointment only expected by well-informed observers – is intended to be the new Minister of Education and Science. And secondly, Jens Spahn will be the future Minister of Health.

Whereas the appointment of Karliczek prompted some commenters to doubt her suitability for the job because of an alleged lack of credentials in the field of education and science, nobody even thought of questioning Spahn´s credentials in healthcare. 

And there is a reason for this: Spahn has a long and successful track record in health politics.

For instance, he was a member of the health committee of the Bundestag from 2005 to 2015. In 2009 he moved on to become his party’s spokesman for health policy. In his time as secretary for finances, he stayed in touch with health politics by chairing his party’s Federal Committee for Health and Care. In 2013, Spahn served as the decisive negotiator for health during the coalition talks between the Union and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). The SPD’s then-negotiator Karl commented on Spahn’s appointment with a compliment towards his experience and his competences in the field of healthcare.

The minister post is a logical next step in his career. It is said of him that he has higher aspirations than the Ministry of Health and that the conservative wing of the party would like to see him succeed in his vision. As a distinct critic of Merkel, Jens Spahn is considered to be the great hope of the party’s conservative wing.

However, to do so, his main goal is now to survive his new job unscathed – not an easy task. Aside from the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Health is considered to be the “career-killer” in German politics. Observers believe that Merkel is trying to appease the conservative wing of the CDU with her decision for Spahn and against former Parliamentary State Secretary at the Ministry of Health, Annette Widmann-Mauz, who is said to be a Merkel adherent. Merkel´s rationale could be to keep Spahn busy with handling the complex problems and challenges of the German healthcare sector while bringing newly elected CDU-General Secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, into the position to take over.

It is an open secret that Spahn and Merkel don´t like each other much. True to his conservative background, Spahn was among the first to voice criticism of Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis within the party. He has recently and repeatedly been to Vienna, meeting Sebastian Kurz at various events, sending a conservative statement. He is also known for provocative comments such as a prohibition of Burkas or regulations for Muslim communities. 

In regard to health policy, the 37-year-old has shown stark interest in the improvement of care, calling it the “great topic moving Germany”. Additionally, Spahn is concerned with rising contribution rates within the private health insurance which he deems problematic. In this context, he also plans to mitigate differences in quality between the two German insurance streams public and private. However, a major reform is not likely, and changes will be limited to issues like improving appointment allocation or mitigating medical fees. Spahn himself is well aware of the systemic problems, and not a big fan of the coexistence of private and public health insurance. Back in 2012, he depicted the German two-stream insurance system as a historical artefact. Aligning the provision quality of public and private insurance is supposed to steal the thunder of the coalition partners proposal of a united health insurance (Bürgerversicherung).

Spahn has not commented on the ban of Rx-mailorder services yet. However, observers expect him to swiftly propose a ban on Rx-mailorder services.

In regard to drug pricing, Spahn has shown understanding for high prices for innovative medicinal products as long as additional benefits are proven. Digitalization has the potential to be high on his agenda as well, after all, he has co-authored a book on digitalization in the health sector in 2016. 

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