In September 2016, the Supreme Court directed the Indian Government to finalize the ‘National Health Policy (NHP)’ guaranteeing ‘assured health services to all’, a draft version of which was already made available to the public on December 30, 2014.
In its order the Apex Court had said: “In case the Union of India thinks it worthwhile to have a National Health Policy, it should take steps to announce it at the earliest and keep issues of gender equity in mind.”
After a wait of over two years, on March 16, 2017, the Union Cabinet approved the final version of the National Health Policy 2017 (NHP 2017) for implementation. The tough socioeconomic distress of the general population related to health care, fueled by near collapsing public health care delivery system when private health care providers are becoming more and more expensive, prompted the current Government to initiate drafting yet another new ‘Health Policy’, with a gap of around 15 years.
NHP 2017 covers a gamut of subjects while articulating its primary aim, which is to inform, clarify, strengthen and prioritize the role of the Government in shaping health systems in all its dimensions. These are investments in health, organization of health care services, prevention of diseases and promotion of good health through cross sectoral actions, access to technologies, developing human resources, encouraging medical pluralism, building a knowledge base, developing better financial protection strategies, strengthening regulation and health assurance.
In this article, primarily for greater clarity in understanding by the readers, I shall start with the reasons of my trepidation and then focus on the silver linings of the NHP 2017.
While explaining the reasons for my trepidation, I shall go back to what I said even before. Over several decades, many of us have tried to ferret out the reasons of giving low national priority to provide access to reasonably affordable, quality public health care to all its citizens by the successive Governments in India but in vain. The quest to know its rationale becomes more intense, as we get to know, even some developing countries in Asia, Africa and Middle East are taking rapid strides to catch up with the health care standards of the developed countries of the world.
In the last few years, many such countries, such as, Thailand, Turkey, Rwanda and Ghana, besides China, have successfully ensured access to quality and affordable health care to their citizens through well-structured national initiatives. The Governments of economically poorer countries, such as, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh too are making rapid progress in this direction, protecting the most vulnerable populations in their respective countries from getting sucked into extreme poverty.
In this context, it will be worthwhile recapping that the NHP 1983, which was revised in 2002, also recommended an increase in public health expenditure to 2.0 percent of GDP in 2010. Not too long ago, in October 2010, the then Government in power 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”.
That said, the reality is, even in the Union budget for 2017-18, the public spending on health keeps hovering around abysmal 1 percent of the GDP. The Union Budget Allocations for several critical health related programs have either remained just around the same as before, or have declined, in real terms. Almost similar trend is noticed in the States, as well. For example, according to the latest Maharashtra State Budget for 2017-18, the State has decided to spend much less on its medical and public health sector schemes in the forthcoming financial year.
Thus, leaving aside implementation of the most critical 1983 NHP goal of providing “Health for all by the year 2000 A.D”, even in 2017 India continues to grapple with the same sets of challenges for ensuring adequate availability, accessibility, affordability, and high quality of comprehensive health care for all.
Some silver linings:
Let bygones be bygones. Let me now focus on the silver linings of the NHP 2017.
Besides gradually raising public expenditure for health care from the current around 1.2 percent to 2.5 percent of GDP, following are examples of some silver linings as I see enshrined in several key objectives of the new health policy, besides several others:
- Progressively achieve Universal Health Coverage: Assuring availability of free, comprehensive primary health care services; ensuring improved access and affordability, of quality secondary and tertiary care services through a combination of public hospitals and the strategic purchasing of services in health care deficit areas, from private care providers, especially the not-for profit providers; achieving a significant reduction in out of pocket expenditure due to health care costs with reduction in proportion of households experiencing catastrophic health expenditures and consequent impoverishment.
- Reinforcing trust in Public Health Care System: Strengthening the trust of the common man in the public health care system by making it predictable, efficient, patient centric, affordable and effective, with a comprehensive package of services and products that meet immediate health care needs of most people.
- Align the growth of the private health care sector with public health goals: Influence the operation and growth of the private health care sector and medical technologies to ensure alignment with public health goals.
- Achieve specific quantitative goals and objectives: These are outlined under three broad components viz. (a) health status and program impact, (b) health systems’ performance and (c) health system strengthening. These goals and objectives are aligned to achieve sustainable development in the health sector in keeping with the policy thrust.
I was encouraged to note a few more silver linings, especially the following ones, from various different areas of the NHP 2017, which:
- Intends to achieve the highest possible level of good health and well-being, through a preventive and promotive health care orientation, besides its emphasis on allocating up to two-thirds or more of resources to primary care followed by secondary and tertiary care.
- Plans creation of Public Health Management Cadre in all States to optimize health outcomes and National Health Care Standards Organization to maintain adequate standards in public and private sector.
- Advocates extensive use of digital tools for improving the efficiency and outcome of the health care system by creating a National Digital Health Authority (NDHA) to regulate, develop and deploy digital health covering the entire process of health care, besides encouraging the application of the ‘Health Card’ for access to a primary health care facility and services anytime, anywhere.
- States that Health Technology Assessment (HTA) is an important tool to ensure that technology choice is not only participatory, but also guided by considerations of scientific evidence, safety, cost effectiveness, social values; and commits to the development of an institutional framework and required capacity for HTA’s quick adoption.
- Assures timely revision of the National List of Essential Medicines along with the appropriate price control.
- Promotes compliance to right of patients to access information on condition and treatment.
The high and low points in NHP 2017:
As I see it, following are - just one each - the most critical high and low points in NHP 2017:
A high point:
NHP 2017 making a categorical promise to increase public health spending to 2.5 percent of GDP in a time-bound manner, guaranteeing Universal Health Care (UHC), is indeed not just encouraging, but also a high point in its silver linings. This is because, without adequate Government spending in this area, it’s just not possible to give shape to UHC, however robust a national health policy is on paper.
A low point:
The draft version of the NHP 2017 had proposed making health a fundamental right for Indian citizens – quite like denial of health is an offence, and reiterated on enactment of this law as follows:
“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 also assured, “The Centre shall enact, after due discussion and at 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.”
Thus, one of the lowest points or most disappointing aspects of the NHP 2017, as compared to its draft version, is the absence of the intent of having a National Health Rights Act. This change makes UHC yet another promise, just as before, without any strong legal backing. As many experts believe, when legal rights and mechanisms institutionalize collaborative goals, methods, and service delivery, they create legally binding duties. Government agencies, patient advocates, and the public can invoke such laws to urge collaboration and seek required public health care services, as promised, always.
The reason behind general expectations for the National Health Rights Act, is mainly because previous National Health Policies also assured ‘health for all’ within a given time-frame. The same promise was also carried through by various successive Governments in the past, but did not come to fruition. Nothing has changed significantly on the ground related to public health care, not just yet. Hence, exclusion of the proposed section of this Act in the final version of the NHP 2017 is a low point for me.
The trepidation lingers. Will it be or won’t it be, yet another repetition of the Government promises made through NHPs or otherwise, is the moot question now.
Specific time frame for achieving most of these policy objectives and intents are still awaited.
Nonetheless, while a robust health policy for a new India, and a commensurate increase in Government spending on public health is much warranted, building a well integrate, comprehensive and accountable health infrastructure that will be sensitive to public health care needs of the country, should assume top priority today.
There exists an 83 percent shortage of specialist medical professionals in the Community Health Centers (CHCs) of India, according to the Rural Health Statistics 2015 released by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, which was reported by IndiaSpend on September 21, 2015. Again, on February 27, 2016, quoting similar Government Data, IndiaSpend reported that public-health centers across India’s rural areas – 25,308 in 29 states and seven union territories – are short of more than 3,000 doctors, the scarcity rose by 200 percent (or tripling) over 10 years.
Other sets of similar data on the grossly inadequate number of doctors, nurses, paramedics and hospital beds per thousand population in India, coupled with frugal rapid transportation facilities in the vast and remote areas of the country, send a clear signal that capacity building in these areas can’t wait any longer. It has been always essential, but did not feature in the ‘to-do’ list of the Government, until now. In that sense, silver linings in the NHP 2017 open the door of great expectations, especially for UHC, despite some trepidation.
Reasonably well-crafted and robust NHP 2017, needs to be integrated with similar initiatives of the States, soon. Effective implementation of a comprehensive, well-integrated and time-bound health care strategic plan, with requisite budgetary allocations having a periodic review process and assigning specific accountabilities to individuals, are the needs of the hour. Otherwise, the social and economic consequences of the status quo in the health care space of India, would impede the sustainable growth of the nation, seriously.
To progress in this direction, the prevailing status-quo must be disrupted, now – decisively and with a great sense of urgency. It is imperative for the Government to make each one of us not only to believe it, but also experience the same in our everyday life. It is important for all concerned to remember what none other than Prime Minister Modi tweeted on March 16, 2017: “National Health Policy marks a historic moment in our endeavor to create a healthy India where everyone has access to quality health care.”
The National Health Policy 2017 is in place now, this is the time to walk the talk!
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.