Over decades, we have been trying to ferret out the unfeigned reasons of failure for India to provide access to reasonably affordable, quality health care to all its citizens, 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 healthcare to their citizens through well-structured national initiatives. Governments of economically poorer countries, such as, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh too are making rapid progress in this direction. All these commendable health care initiatives are protecting the most vulnerable populations in their respective countries from getting swept away by extreme poverty.
No more than just assurances:
In India, economic and social costs of public health care infrastructural inadequacy, consequent low access and inefficient delivery mechanism keep going north, unabated, barring a small number of States. Over decades, Union Governments of all political dispensations have been making no more than incoherent promises and that too in bits and pieces on reform in public health care services. As on date, no Union Government has articulated a comprehensive pathway to achieve this goal, in tandem with the States, specifying required time-frames and making commensurate budgetary allocations.
Despite the legacy factor, the incumbent Government as well, has not taken any tangible measure in this direction, just yet, besides giving similar in-coherent assurances. Nor has it clearly articulated that providing access to quality health care for all, at a reasonable cost, is one of its top areas of priority in the widely publicized ‘National Development Agenda’.
Agonizing wait continues:
That the Government is now in the process of drafting a National Health Policy to meet the rising demand for sustainable healthcare across the country, was announced by the Secretary – Health & Family Welfare on September 1, 2014. The first draft of The National Health Policy 2015 was placed in the public domain seeking inputs from the stakeholders in January 2015.
That said, agonizing wait of the patients with unfathomable patience still continues for better days of high quality and affordable health care services in India. Palpable feeling of long standing apathy of the decision makers in this area keep lingering simultaneously.
Two critical admissions:
Besides others, following are the two critical and unambiguous admissions in the draft National Health Policy 2015:
- “The failure to attain minimum levels of public health expenditure remains the single most important constraint.”
- “Over 63 million persons are faced with poverty every year due to health care costs alone, it is because there is no financial protection for the vast majority of health care needs.”
In my article of January 12, 2015 published in this Blog, titled “National Health Policy 2015 Needs Wings To Fly ”, I deliberated on the draft National Health Policy 2015.
No commensurate budgetary provisions:
Despite being aware of the above facts, the Union Budget for 2015-16 allocated just below Rs. 30,000 Crore for health care in India, without unveiling any longer term picture in this regard, not even a ‘broad brush’ one.
To give a perspective regarding how meagre is this budgetary allocation on so critical an area, I quickly add that on August 19, 2015, Prime Minister Modi announced an allocation of Rs.1.25 lakh crore for the development of only Bihar, just prior to the state going for the assembly election.
The Finance Ministers reasoned in his budget speech that post devolution of resources to the states following the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission, the states will address the issue of healthcare in their respective geographical jurisditions.
However, it does not make much sense to me, if at all. This is mainly because, though health is a state subject, it is still a very critical national issue with an overall dismal performance of the country against most of the ‘Millennium Development Goals’.
Only a ‘National Health Plan’ funded jointly and adequately by both the center and the States with clear budgetary provisions and executed immaculately against clearly measurable performance parameters with specifically assigned accountabilities, could salvage the disastrous consequences of further neglect in the health care space of the country.
Not just deployment of financial resources:
The core issue, I reckon, is not just inadequate deployment of financial resources, but continuation of lack of effective governance in the Union Ministry of Health, as well. And, this is indeed a deadly combination. It has been pushing a large number of patients in India embracing abject poverty every year, as admitted in the draft National Health Policy 2015 of the incumbent Government, but with no visible rectifying measures, as on date.
Dangling carrots, as it were, to the patients by different Union Governments in shedloads, such as, ‘free medicines for all’, ‘free health insurance for all’, ‘free diagnostics for all” and what not ‘for all’, has been continuing forever, with patients having no other choices but to have patience in plenty and probably in perpetuity.
When Primary Health Care itself is a critical issue… :
In such deteriorating heath care environment, when primary health care still remains a key issue mostly in rural India, yet another interesting and tentative assurance reportedly comes from no less than the Union Minister of Health himself on August 18, 2015, when he said:
“The government is working both in secondary and tertiary medical sector and I believe that we need to work out a module in PPP mode to lessen the healthcare burden of common man.”
Having said that, when it comes to providing healthcare services to the poor and the needy, the Honorable Minister, expressed his vision in a notably interesting way, which is reportedly as follows:
“How will we be able to give the healthcare facility to helpless is one question that is unanswered…. All stakeholders should answer this question. Enhance the teaching, the training should be at much higher, speed, scale and skill and above all there should be better communication.”
Going beyond just allopathic treatment:
To answer the Health Minister’s above question – “How will we be able to give the healthcare facility to helpless”, one of the many important ways for the Government, I reckon, is to make a decisive and robust move much beyond Allopathic treatment, just as what China has done with its ‘traditional medicines’.
The strengths of traditional Indian medicines need to be properly leveraged with requisite intervention of science and technology and supported by effective awareness building campaigns.
Expand the role of ‘Traditional Medicines’:
Treatment with traditional medicines in India for many well-tried common diseases, has the potential to play an important role in providing access to health care for all, at least in the public health care space of the country, where AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy) needs to be promoted and encouraged, actively.
It is expected that the new National Health Policy 2015 would have a much greater focus on the traditional systems of medicine – AYUSH, for the treatment of many common diseases.
It appears from various reports, AYUSH system that calls for not very sophisticated technological inputs for diagnosis of common diseases and preparation of medicinal substances, could be made an integral part of the entire healthcare spectrum, starting from the primary health centers.
As a basic preparatory measure to achieve this goal, the rejuvenated ‘Department of AYUSH’ should work, in consultation with the respective domain experts, to chart out an effective and implementable pathway for the development of education and research in Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy systems.
Need to increase focus on AYUSH:
It has been widely reported that the use of herbs to treat various common ailments is almost universal among many societies, as these are quite often more affordable than buying expensive modern allopathic medicines.
According to the World Health Organization, around 80 per cent of the population of some Asian and African countries currently use traditional medicines to address their health care needs.
I thought the same holds good for India, as well.
However, from a very recent and credible survey report, I find that the above impression is not quite true for India. Penetration of traditional AYUSH systems of treatment, even within the rural population of India, is currently abysmally low.
According to NSSO’s (National Sample Survey Office) Household Expenditures on Health Survey, conducted between January and June 2014, usage of Allopathy for “spells of ailment” is unusually high both in urban and rural India, as follows:
|Allopathy Treatment %
(Source: NSSO 2014-15)
In the absence of adequate access to safe and cost-effective treatments through public health care infrastructure and delivery systems, be it Allopathic or AYUSH, more number of patients are compelled to seek expensive private healthcare services for their “spells of ailment”, as follows:
(Source: NSSO 2014-15)
AYUSH could play an important role to address such issues, appreciably.
An intriguing recent media report:
On August 19, 2015, I read an intriguing media report that highlights the following two points on apparently a ‘recently overhauled draft’ of the National Health Policy 2015, as follows:
- “The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government plans to increase public investment in health from 1.04 per cent of GDP (gross domestic product) to 2.5 per cent by 2020, with 70 per cent of this being dedicated to primary health care. This target has been set in the overhauled draft National Health Policy that now emphasizes on substantially ratcheting up government investment in public health care facilities across the country.”
- “Of the total funds required, the Union government would provide 40 per cent, which could be shored up through a health cess on the lines of an education cess. The cess fund to be used specifically for public health investments could be partly shored up by imposing additional duties on tobacco, alcohol, fatty, salty and sugary products that are considered unhealthy by experts.”
Why is this media report so baffling?
This news really baffled me…a lot, as another more than six month old media report of January 1, 2015 stated just the same on the same two points, exactly quoting the very first draft (not the ‘overhauled’ one) of the National Health Policy 2015 , as follows:
- “The draft National Health Policy, 2015 has proposed a target of raising public health expenditure to 2.5 % from the present 1.2% of GDP. It also notes that 40% of this would need to come from central expenditure.”
- “The government is also keen to explore the creation of a health cess on the lines of education cess for raising money needed to fund the expenditure it would entail. Other than general taxation, this cess could mobilize contributions from specific commodity taxes such as the taxes on tobacco, and alcohol, from specific industries and innovative forms of resource mobilization.”
Be that as it may, I would urge you to please read both the old and new original media reports on the same draft National Health Policy 2015 and draw your own conclusions, as you deem appropriate.
No change on the ground:
The media reports, such as above, elaborately detailing a significant increase in the health care expenditure as a percentage of GDP in the so called “overhauled” draft of the National Health Policy 2015, gave me an impression that the status quo, at least, in the public health care expenditure scenario has now been disrupted, which in reality has not, at all.
Such reports make patients continue ‘counting colors in the rainbow’, as it were. They keep expecting that getting access to quality and affordable health care for all would soon become a reality, with the Government thinking afresh to raise the public health care expenditure significantly. In reality, the status quo on the ground continues and it can’t be just wished away.
Deserves ‘Infrastructure Status’:
To achieve the basic health care goals of the nation, the Government would require to set the national priorities right. Health care has to be placed at the top rungs of its ‘National Development Agenda’ just as ‘infrastructure’- disrupting the prevailing status quo.
Considering its critical social and economic impact on the progress of the nation, it is about time that ‘Health Care Sector’ be given the ‘infrastructure status’ in India, not just to give a further boost to the industry, but also to make health care products and services affordable to all.
Making health a ‘Fundamental Right’ for Indian Citizens, as narrated in the draft National Health Policy (NHP) 2015 of Narendra Modi Government, is indeed profound in its both content and intent. However, inordinate delay in its finalization and commencement of implementation process is rather disturbing.
Overhaul and expansion of public health care infrastructure, services and the effective delivery mechanism, undoubtedly, are very necessary requirements for the length and breadth of the country, excepting a very small number of states, which are doing so well in this area.
That said, the real issue is much more deep seated. As the well-known economist Subir Gokarn wrote in one of his articles that in health care “the consequence of inaction is a vicious circle between morbidity and poverty.”
This ‘vicious circle’ has to be broken, sooner. Many developing countries, including much poorer nations, have successfully demonstrated that access to basic quality healthcare can be provided to all, at an affordable cost.
Well-crafted robust national health care plan and policy, which are integrated with similar initiatives of the States should soon be put in place. Effective implementation of a comprehensive, well-integrated and time-bound health care strategic plan, with requisite budgetary allocations and periodic review, 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.
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.