With Frugal Public Resource Allocation Quo Vadis Healthcare in India?

The memory is still afresh in India. A new political dispensation took charge of the governance of the country, riding on the tidal waves of people’s hope and aspirations, with presumed credibility to ‘Walk the Talk’. The expectations were skyrocketing for a change…better days for all, sooner. This covered the public healthcare space, as well.

Responding to such genuine public expectations, when in May 2014, the then new Union Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan reportedly announced that his ministry would soon start working on distribution of free medicines through public hospitals across the country, a hope for a long-awaited healthcare reform in India, sooner, was rekindled.

This happened despite the fact that similar promises were made by the immediate past Government too.

The Cost and the Span:

The erstwhile Planning Commission of India had estimated that a countrywide free generic drug program would cost Rs 28,560 Crore (roughly around US$ 5 Billion) during the 12th Five-Year Plan period. The Centre will bear 75 percent of the cost while the states would provide the rest.

Under the previous government plan, 348 drugs enlisted in the National List of Essential Medicines 2011 (NLEM 2011) were to be provided free at 160,000 sub-centers, 23,000 Primary Health Centers, 5,000 community health centers and 640 district hospitals of the country.

Previous action:

Late 2012, the previous Union Government made its first move in this regard by formally clearing Rs. 13,000 Crore  (around US$ 2.2 billion) towards providing free medicines for all through government hospitals and health centers.

To facilitate the process, in November 2013, the then Union Health Ministry by a notification reportedly made the public drug procurement system in the country through ‘Central Medical Services Society (CMSS)’ formally operational. For different flagship program of the Government such as, National Health Mission, the drug procurement was planned through the CMSS.

The notification said:

The CMSS will be responsible for procuring health sector goods in a transparent and cost-effective manner and distributing them to the States/UTs by setting up an IT enabled supply chain infrastructure including warehouses in 50 locations.

Unfortunately, due to resource constraint of the previous Union Government, the program of distribution of free medicines for all through public hospitals across the country could not be translated into reality.

The fresh hope scaled greater heights:

In the first Union Budget Proposal (2014-15) of the new Government, some high impact healthcare areas were addressed as follows:

A. Access improvement:

- “Health for All”: Free drugs and diagnostic services for all would help improving ‘Access’ to healthcare by manifold.

- Universal access to early quality diagnosis and treatment to TB patients would again help millions.

- Deeper penetration of health insurance and its innovative usage would also help a significant number of populations of the country having adequate ‘Access’ to healthcare.

B. Affordability:

- HIV AIDS drugs and diagnostic kits were made cheaper through duty rationalization.

- “Health for All” – Again, free drugs and diagnostic services for all would help answering the issue of ‘Affordability’, as well.

C. Capacity building:

- Two National Institutes of Aging (NIA) at AIIMS, New Delhi, and Madras Medical College, Chennai to come up.

- Four more AIIMS-like institutions in Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Vidarbha in Maharashtra and Purvanchal in UP, for which Rs 500 Crores were set aside.

- Additional 58 government medical colleges, including 12 colleges where dental facilities, were also proposed.

- The fund for 15 Model Rural Health Research Centers (MHRCs) in states for better healthcare facilities in rural India was provided.

- Central assistance to strengthen the States’ Drug Regulatory and Food Regulatory Systems by creating new drug testing laboratories and strengthening the 31 existing state laboratories was announced.

D. Innovation:

- Cluster-led biotech development was announced.

E. Ease of doing business:

- Number of common pan-industry initiatives enlisted in the Union Budget 2014-15 proposals, would improve overall ‘Ease of Doing Business’ in the healthcare sector too.

A concern remained…even at that time:

Despite all these, there was a concern. In the Union Budget proposals 2014-15, the health sector attracted a total outlay of Rs 35, 163 Crore, which was a very low increase from the previous year’s Rs 33, 278 Crore. I wondered at that time also, whether this increase would be sufficient enough to meet all healthcare commitments, as it does not even take inflation into account.

Draft ‘National Health Policy’ further boosted the expectations:

In the midst of growing expectations for healthcare reform in India, the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare through its draft National Health Policy, 2015 (NHP 2015) proposed making health a fundamental right.

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 healthcare 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 ‘Out of Pocket’ health expenditure (over 61 percent for of that is on medicines) is pushing nearly 63 million people into poverty every year.

One of the key features of the draft NHP 2015 is a universal medical insurance scheme that will be virtually free for the poor and affordable for the rest.

To translate all these good intents into reality, speedy implementation of a robust healthcare reform roadmap, backed by adequate budgetary support, is critical. Only such well coordinated and comprehensive action plan, when effectively put in place, would be able to send strong signals to the stakeholders about the seriousness of the Government to fulfill its much-hyped promises and obligations towards healthcare reform in India.

Required budgetary allocation:

The 12th Fiver Year Plan of the erstwhile Government of India, the fate of which is still not clearly known, 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 healthcare (excluding water and sanitation) is stagnating around 0.9 percent of the GDP.

Instead of increase, a steep cut in health budget of 2014-15:

Despite prevailing lackluster public healthcare scenario, in December 2014, just prior to the proposal of Union Budget 2015-16, the new Government reportedly ordered more than Rs 6,000 Crore or US$948 million cut (20 percent) from its own budget allocation of around US $5 billion for the financial year ending March 31, 2015, due to fiscal constraints.

The finance ministry reportedly also ordered a spending cut this year (2014-15) 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.

India’s public healthcare expenditure one of the world’s lowest:

It is worth mentioning that at around 0.9 percent of GDP, India’s public health expenditure is already among the lowest in the world, as 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.

It is noteworthy that the public sector is the main source of health funding in nearly all OECD countries. However, in India, only 33 percent of health spending was funded by public sources in 2012, a much lower share than the average of 72 percent in OECD countries.

Moreover, health accounted for only 4.8 percent of total government spending in 2012, significantly lower than the 14.4 percent across OECD countries.

Similarly, ‘Out-of Pocket’ costs accounted for over 60 percent of health spending in India in 2012, higher than in any other OECD country.

Are the successive Governments ignoring healthcare in India:

Despite such worrisome scenario in the healthcare space, India’s healthcare budget has already witnessed a 29 percent decline over the past year, from Rs. 29,165 Crore in 2013-14 to Rs 20,431.4 Crore (post cut) in 2014-15.

This assumes even greater significance, when India, contributing 21 percent of the global disease burden, accounts for just a fraction of global spending on health.

The hope flickers:

As stated earlier, to meet its fiscal deficit target the Government has slashed the health budget by 20 percent for 2014-15.

Despite the above huge budgetary cut, the hope of the stakeholders continued to flicker, expecting some major announcement on healthcare related financial allocation in the Union Budget of 2015-16. The stakeholders expected, at least this time the new Government would ‘Walk the Talk’ to fulfill its own promises, made thus far, on healthcare.

Very surprisingly, even from the reform oriented new Government, the Union Budget 2015-16 came as a dampener for the healthcare space in the country. The budgetary allocation for healthcare has been proposed as Rs. 33,152 Crore, a tad more than Rs. 30,645 Crore of 2014-15, with no visible indication for any healthcare reform measure in the country, any time soon, adequately backed by commensurate budgetary allocation.

It is worth noting that in the first three years of the 12th Five-Year Plan, the total health spend has been round Rs 70,000 Crore. This is significantly less than Rs. 2,68,000 Crore allocated for 2012-17 period.

‘Health’ is a State subject:

In his Union Budget speech of 2015-16 , the Finance Minister has articulated clearly that health being a State subject, individual States would require to take appropriate measures in the healthcare area, especially after substantial devolution of resources to the States by the 14th Finance Commission.

That said, a well-coordinated national action plan for healthcare, championed by the Union Ministry of Health, is equally important. This would also require appropriate budgetary resource deployment at the center.


As we have all witnessed, in the healthcare domain of India, various good intents have been announced with appropriate media attention in the recent months, as was done by the previous Government earlier. However, none of these seemingly ‘off the cuff’ announcements is supported by any clear strategic road map with clearly earmarked budgetary allocations. On the contrary, some retrograde steps have already been taken in this area, as mentioned above.

While the draft NHP 2015, emphasizing the need of its effective implementation, strongly encourages a framework that will “specify approved financial allocations and linked to this, measurable numerical output targets and time schedules”, there is no mention of it even on a long-term budgetary allocation perspective in the Finance Minister’s budget speech, not even the program on ‘free medicines’ and the National Health Assurance Mission, which the prime minister is expected to launch in April 2015.

All these assume high significance, as a quantum leap in budgetary allocation for health would be warranted in the years ahead to fulfill the promises that have been already made for healthcare reform in India.

With this backdrop, while looking through the kaleidoscope of Government slogans on development in various spheres of national interest, including individual life, society and business, I still find hope around, painted craftily with different hues and colors, albeit faded though.

In the midst of this ongoing semi mass euphoria, as it were, possibly due to long-awaited change in governance of the country, none seems to still bother too much on the healthcare needs of the common man, far from creating through an informed discourse a ground swell for public healthcare reform process in India, soonest.

As things stand today, I wonder, with continuing frugal public resource deployment, and that too for such a long time, ‘Quo Vadis’ healthcare in India?

By: Tapan J. Ray

DisclaimerThe 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.