As India is struggling hard to come out of economic meltdown, and more – while navigating through the Covid-19 pandemic, the issue of reducing the National Disease Burden (NDP) with comprehensive measures resurfaces. According to a World Bank study, with ’17.5% of the global population, India bears 20% of the global disease burden.’
It’s also a well-reported fact that one such critical measure in this area is expanding access to affordable medicines to a vast Indian population. This is essential, despite some laudable measures taken by the country in this space. Which is why, it has attracted the government’s focus – yet again, even in the new normal.
This is evident from the Notification of the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) dated 13.01.2022. This pertains to the DoP’s request for Proposal (RFP) from reputed companies, “To study the drug pricing policies of different countries/ region and lessons learnt from these countries/ regions in terms of access to medicine at affordable prices.” The selected company will conduct the study, on behalf of the government to understand the drug pricing methodology adopted in at least 10 countries, it said.
According to the RFP document, a minimum of ten countries/regions that should be covered are – Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, China, EU, UK, Australia, USA, Brazil, South Africa, and Thailand. It also mentioned, after selection – the chosen company has to submit its final report in four months, besides quarterly progress report during this period.
This article will focus on the relevance of a renewed government focus on access to affordable medicines, after the third wave of the pandemic, even after various recent measures undertaken by the government in this direction.
What does ‘access’ mean in the healthcare context – a recap:
Although, ‘access’ is a well-used word in the health care scenario, let me recapitulate the same to be on the same page with my readers in this discourse. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ): Access to health care means having “the timely use of personal health services to achieve the best health outcomes.” It has four components, namely:
- Coverage: facilitates entry into the health care system. Uninsured people are less likely to receive medical care and more likely to have poor health status.
- Services: provides a source of care, associated with adults receiving recommended screening and prevention services.
- Timeliness: ability to provide health care when the need is recognized.
- Workforce: capable, qualified, culturally competent health care personnel.
Let me emphasize again that the purpose of recapitulating what does healthcare ‘access’ mean, is to give a sense of how are we positioned in India, in this regard.
Key reasons for inadequate access to healthcare, especially in India:
Following are three fundamental reasons for lack, or inadequate access to healthcare, as relevant to India:
- A large section of the population cannot access healthcare owing its cost relative to their respective income.
- Many others can’t access, as no quality and affordable facilities are located nearby where they live.
- Most importantly, a large Indian population can’t have adequate access to quality health care, because they don’t have any healthcare coverage. This point was flagged by the AHRQ, as well.
It is, therefore, noteworthy that to ensure access to quality healthcare, either free or affordable, health coverage for all – public or private, is critical for any nation. Whereas a large Indian population still remains without any health coverage, as the recent government publications vindicate.
Despite high OOPE a large population is still without any health coverage:
On this issue, NITI Aayog report, published in October 2021, shared some important facts. A staggering number of over 400 million Indians, still live without any financial protection for health. This is despite the launch of ‘Ayushman Bharat – Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (AB-PMJAY)’ launched in September 2018, and State Government extension schemes, the paper says. Notably, ‘the actual uncovered population is higher due to existing coverage gaps in PMJAY and overlap between schemes,’ the report added.
Interestingly, the paper acknowledged: “Low Government expenditure on health has constrained the capacity and quality of healthcare services in the public sector. It diverts most individuals – about two-thirds – to seek treatment in the costlier private sector. “As low financial protection leads to high out-of-pocket expenditure (OOPE). India’s population is vulnerable to catastrophic spending, and impoverishment from expensive trips to hospitals and other health facilities,” it observed.
The government spending on public health at 1.5% of GDP, remains among the lowest in the world impacting reach, capacity, and quality of public healthcare services. It is compelling people to seek treatment in the costlier private sector. Almost 60% of all hospitalizations, and 70% of outpatient services are delivered by the high-cost private sector, NITI Aayog highlighted.
Major part of OOPE goes for buying drugs:
According to the W.H.O’s health financing profile 2017, 67.78% of total expenditure on health in India was paid out of pocket, while the world average is just 18.2%. Moreover, the Union Health ministry had also reported that ‘medicines are the biggest financial burden on Indian households.’ Around 43% of OOPE towards health, reportedly, went for buying medicines and 28% in private hospitals.
Thus: ‘Much of this problem of debt can be solved if medicines are made available to people at affordable prices. The National Health Policy 2017 also highlighted the need for providing free medicines in public health facilities by stepping up funding and improving drug procurement and supply chain mechanisms,” the report added.
Access to affordable drugs continues to remain a top priority today:
The above point was also emphasized in the Annual Report 2020-21 of the Department of Pharmaceuticals. It underscored: ‘The Government is now contemplating to introduce a new National Pharmaceutical Policy, where – ‘Making essential drugs accessible at affordable prices to the common masses,’ featured at the top of the policy objectives, as follows:
- Making essential drugs accessible at affordable prices to the common masses.
- Providing a long-term stable policy environment for the pharmaceutical sector.
- Making India sufficiently self-reliant in end-to-end indigenous drug manufacturing.
- Ensuring world class quality of drugs for domestic consumption & exports.
- Creating an environment for R & D to produce innovator drugs;
Ensuring the growth and development of the Indian Pharma Industry.
What happens when all will come under health coverage, if at all:
Even when, and if, all Indians comes under health coverage – public or private – drug cost will continue to play a major role even to the institutional payers. This is mostly to ensure the cost of health coverage remains reasonable, and affordable to all. This can possibly be done either through:
- Price negotiation with the manufacturers, or
- Price control by the government
In any case, there needs to be a transparent mechanism for either of above two, which the government seems to be refocusing on, as it appears today.
Thus, to reduce the burden of disease in India, especially after going through a harrowing experience of the Covid-19 pandemic, where co-morbidity posed a major threat to life, India is likely to up the ante, as we move into the new normal.
From this viewpoint, a brand-new study, as mentioned above, initiated by the government to facilitate expanded access to affordable medicines, is a laudable initiative for all Indians. It’s a noteworthy point for the drug industry, as well, especially, the research-based pharma and biotech companies. As I wrote before, they should also pick this signal to focus on all 3 areas of innovation for affordable access to innovative drugs, not just on costly patented drugs for only those who can afford.
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.