Ensuring ‘access to healthcare for all’ has remained a key well-articulated good intent of all the successive Governments in India, cutting across the political regimes, since 1983.
The Union Ministry of Health & Family Welfare published the first “National Health Policy (NHP)”, in 1983, which was endorsed by the Indian Parliament in the same year. The policy categorically enunciated the following:
“India is committed to attaining the goal of ‘Health for All by the Year 2000 A.D.’ through the universal provision of comprehensive primary healthcare services”.
For the first time after independence, this document captured the key directions and dimension of the national health policy such as, the creation of infrastructure for primary healthcare; close co-ordination with health-related services and activities (like nutrition, drinking water supply and sanitation); active involvement and participation of voluntary organizations; provision of essential drugs and vaccines; qualitative improvement in health and family planning services; provision of adequate training; and medical research aimed at the common health problems of the people. However, it did not elaborate much about the Universal Health Care (UHC).
Abysmal public expenditure to meet the key goal of NHP 1983:
The NHP 1983, which was revised in 2002, recommended an increase in public health expenditure to 2.0 percent of GDP in 2010.
The 12th Fiver Year Plan of the Government of India again acknowledged that the health sector expenditure by the central and state governments, both plan and non-plan will have to be substantially increased during the plan period. It also stated that the health expenditure was increased from 0.94 per cent of GDP in the 10th Plan to 1.04 per cent in 11th Plan and it should be increased to 2.5 per cent of GDP by the end of 12th Five Year Plan period.
That said, the bottom-line is, the current public spending on health is stagnating around 0.9 percent of the GDP. Leave aside implementation of the 1983 NHP goal of providing “Health for all by the year 2000 A.D”, even in 2015, India continues to grapple with the challenges for ensuring availability, accessibility, affordability and quality of comprehensive healthcare to all, though various governments have come and gone during this period. India’s rank in the Human Development Index (HDI) also remains at pitiful 136 out of 187 countries and despite improvements, India is likely to miss some key MDG targets in 2015.
Pockets of improvements – mostly grossly inadequate:
In the midst of gloom and doom in the health space of India, the 57 page draft NHP 2015 captures some of commendable improvements, as well, and very rightly so, which I am not going to repeat in this article.
A June 2013 report of IMS Institute also acknowledges that the extent of change and improvement in India’s healthcare system over the past decade is remarkable. The Government of India’s initiatives, as well as private sector actions and public-private-partnership programs, have contributed to this progress. Yet a lot more remains to be done.
The report highlights the following areas, which are worth taking note of:
- The physical accessibility of public or private healthcare facilities is a challenge in rural areas. By contrast, in urban areas, accessibility is less of a challenge due to more facilities being available.
- An increasing proportion of the population is using private healthcare facilities for both in-patient and out-patient treatments. Long waiting times and absence of diagnostic facilities are among the main reasons private healthcare facilities are chosen over public centers for in-patient treatment. For out-patient treatment, the availability or doctors and quality of care are cited as reasons for selecting a private healthcare facility. However, patients would readily switch to public healthcare centers if these issues were addressed, the research report states.
- The cost of treatment at a public healthcare facility is much more affordable than at a private center. However, due to lack of physical reach, availability of quality treatment and other practices, patients are forced to use more expensive private facilities, thus exacerbating affordability challenges. The majority of Out of Pocket (OoP) expenses are due to medicines.
- Overall, while there are pockets of improvements, significant healthcare access challenges continue to exist for the Indian population, especially in rural areas.
OoP expenses on health is one of the highest in India:
Out of Pocket (OoP) expenditure on health is one of the highest in India at 61.7 percent, as acknowledges by the draft NHP 2015, as well. This is against 35.3 of China, 30.6 of Brazil, 44.6 of Sri Lanka, 61.3 of Bangladesh, 14 of Thailand, 8.9 of United Kingdom and 11.8 of the United States. The reason being, due to lack of access to cheaper and quality public health facilities, a vast majority of the Indian population is forced to turn to expensive private healthcare providers, as confirmed by the IMS Institute in its above report..
Suggested framework for a comprehensive view of healthcare access:
The same June 2013 report of IMS Institute states that healthcare access has varying meaning in different countries, especially across developing and developed economies. In the developed economies, it is often equated to the access status of healthcare insurance, whereas in the developing economies, it is viewed primarily across two dimensions: the physical reach of a healthcare facility, and affordability to the patient.
Thus, it is important to build a framework that would provide a comprehensive view to healthcare access. The framework should be able to define healthcare access in the Indian context, aided by other parameters that are key in ensuring quality treatment to a patient.
The framework also allows understanding of each component of healthcare access separately, including inter-dependencies.
According to IMS Institute, healthcare access has 4 key dimensions as follows:
This component defines physical accessibility of a requisite healthcare facility, i.e. availability of a healthcare facility having an out-patient department (OPD) for common ailments, and an in-patient department (IPD) for hospitalization. These facilities may either be public or private in nature. Physical reach is defined as the ability to enter a healthcare facility within 5 kilometers (5km) from the place of residence or work.
This component defines availability of the requisite healthcare resources to provide patient treatment, i.e. doctors, nurses, in-patient beds, diagnostics, consumables, etc. The availability is governed by minimum specifications defined by the Government of India for public healthcare facilities, and international organizations such as W.H.O.
This component defines the quality of the healthcare resources available at the point of patient treatment.
This component defines the ability of a patient to afford complete treatment for the illness or disease.
Draft NHP 2015 – ‘Health is a fundamental right’:
Though the above parameters were not quite considered, as such, to define access to healthcare, the new government has done a good job with the draft NHP 2015, while updating NHP 2002. The new draft has evoked good interest among the stakeholders as healthcare has become very costly in India and continues to go north, steadily, as mentioned above.
The draft has covered lots of ground related to health, spanning across the change in the nature of the nation’s disease burden from communicable to non-communicable diseases, shortage of human resources in health sector and right up to the use of information and communication technology. It’s a hard fact that low investment in public health has been placing India consistently at the lower rungs of the development indices.
Against the backdrop of paltry public expenditure on health, the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare through its draft National Health Policy, 2015 (NHP 2015) has proposed making health a fundamental right, similar to denial of health an offence.
The draft policy reiterates, “Many industrialized nations have laws that do so. Many of the developing nations that have made significant progress towards universal health coverage, such as Brazil and Thailand, have done so, and … such a law is a major contributory factor. A number of international covenants to which we [India] are joint signatories give us such a mandate – and this could be used to make a national law. Courts have also rulings that, in effect, see health care as a fundamental right — and a constitutional obligation flowing out of the right to life.”
The draft NHP 2015 even states, “The Centre shall enact, after due discussion and on the request of three or more states a National Health Rights Act, which will ensure health as a fundamental right, whose denial will be justiciable.”
The new draft policy acknowledges that primary healthcare of date covers not more than 20 per cent of the health needs and that a very high OoP health expenditure (over 61 percent on medicines) is pushing nearly 63 million people into poverty every year.
One of the key features of the new draft policy is an universal medical insurance scheme that will be virtually free for the poor and affordable for the rest. The government expects the stakeholders to send their comments and suggestions on the draft policy by February 28, 2014.
However, the draft NHP 2015 does not deliberate on some other important areas, such as specific time-bound commitments on public investments, insurance cover on outpatient treatments & care and appropriate regulations for the private sector to contain healthcare costs.
Cut on current year health budget raises may eyebrows:
In the midst of the prevailing lackluster public healthcare scenario, just in the last month (December 2014), the government has reportedly ordered a US$ 948 million (20 percent) cut in its 2014-15 healthcare budget due to fiscal constraints.
It is worth mentioning that at 0.9 percent of GDP, India’s public health expenditure is already among the lowest in the world, as compared to compared to 2.7 percent in China, 4.2 percent in brazil, 1.4 percent in Bangladesh, 1.6 percent in Sri Lanka, 2.9 percent in Thailand and 8.5 percent in the United States.
In addition to the healthcare budget, the finance ministry has reportedly also ordered a spending cut this year for India’s HIV/AIDS program by about 30 percent to US$ 205.4 million.
A report from Reuters, quoting one of the health ministry officials, stated that this budget cut could crimp efforts to control the spread of diseases. More newborns die in India than in poorer neighbors such as Bangladesh, and preventable illnesses such as diarrhea kill more than a million children every year.
Needs wings to fly:
The draft NHP 2015 has come thirteen years after the previous NHP 2002 and following a 20 percent cut even on the paltry budgetary allocation on public health of this financial year. Thus, many skeptics ponder whether this well drafted NHP 2015, pregnant with many great promises, would ever see the light of the day.
The skepticism gets further reinforced, when the draft NHP 2015 says that to achieve its objectives the budgetary allocation on health would be increased to 2.5 percent of the GDP. The Government proposes to rely mostly on general taxation, besides creating a health cess similar to that of education cess, for effective implementation of this health policy. The draft indicates that 40 percent of this budget would come from central expenditure.
A quick reading of the following text from the Reuter’s report makes the scenario even more intriguing:
“The retrenchment (budget cut) could also derail an ambitious universal healthcare program that Modi wants to launch in April. The plan aims to provide all citizens with free drugs and diagnostic treatments, as well as insurance benefits.
The cost of that program over the next four years had been estimated at 1.6 trillion rupees (US$ 25 billion). The health ministry officials had been expecting a jump in their budget for the coming year, in part to pay for this extra cost.
‘Even next year we don’t think we’ll get a huge amount of money,’ said one official, adding that it was now unclear how the new program would be funded.”
Thus, the key point to ponder now: Would the NHP 2015 have wings to fly?
Is India just producing various documents on health without action?
Not too long ago, in October 2010, the Government of India constituted a ‘High Level Expert Group (HLEG)’ on Universal Health Coverage (UHC) under the chairmanship of the well-known international medical expert Prof. K. Srinath Reddy. The HLEG was mandated to develop a framework for providing easily accessible and affordable health care to all Indians.
The HLEG Report defined UHC as follows:
“Ensuring equitable access for all Indian citizens, resident in any part of the country, regardless of income level, social status, gender, caste or religion, to affordable, accountable, appropriate health services of assured quality (promotive, preventive, curative and rehabilitative) as well as public health services addressing the wider determinants of health delivered to individuals and populations, with the government being the guarantor and enabler, although not necessarily the only provider, of health and related services”.
I discussed this subject in my blog post of December 12, 2011, titled “Health being a basic human right, the proposal for Universal Health Coverage augurs well for India”
Most probably, this excellent HLEG report on UHC has already become an archival material for the posterity to refer, if and when required.
Interestingly, despite governments of different political dispensation ruling the country since 1983, the key goal of the NHP 1983 to ‘provide healthcare to all by the year 2000’ continues to haunt us over the last three decades.
Public healthcare infrastructure, especially in rural India, still remains grossly inadequate.
In most of the villages in India, primary health facilities, if available, (except in some progressive states), continue to be shoddy, fragile and is gasping for breath, as it were. Recent examples of Bilaspur (Chhattisgarh) sterilization tragedy in November 2014, when 15 women died or the incident of last week in Chatra district of Jharkhand, where about 40 women allegedly underwent sterilization under torchlight, would vindicate this point.
Much hyped program of “free essential drugs for all, from the government hospitals” has not been universally implemented, just yet…again due to financial resource constraints and paucity of other wherewithal.
Currently, none of the newer constitutional rights, such as right to food, education and employment, enacted by the lawmakers for the well being of the concerned people of the country, is functioning as desired for various financial and administrative reasons. Even making adequate budgetary provisions for all these projects continue to pose a great challenge, both for the central and the state Governments.
Overall, NHP 2015 is a well-drafted and comprehensive policy document. It analyses the successes and failures of the past quite well, with a proposal of making health as a fundamental right. However, the status and experience with the other fundamental right-based legislations in India, do not fuel much optimism in this critical area, at least, as of now.
Consequently, the draft NHP 2015 does not appear to be more than a lucid narration of good intents, just what the NHP 1983 and 2002 did. Next month’s Union budget allocation for the financial year 2015-16 for health, calculated as a percentage of India’s GDP, would hopefully bring more clarity in this area.
Additionally, other important areas such as, specific time-bound commitments on public investments for health; extensions of medical insurance cover to even outpatient treatments & care and appropriate regulations for the private sector to contain healthcare expenditure, are worth considering in the NHP 2015.
Shorn of all these, would the National Health Policy 2015 have its wings to fly?
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.