Union Budget 2018: The ‘WOW’ Moment for Indian Healthcare?

The 2018-19 Union Budget proposals, presented before the Parliament on February 01, 2018. Especially for those who take keen interest in the Indian healthcare environment, was there a ‘WOW’ moment in the budget? Some say, this long-awaited moment came with the Union Finance Minister’s (FM) announcement of the ‘Ayushman Bharat Program (ABP)’ – the “world’s largest healthcare program,” taking a major step towards the Universal Health Coverage (UHC) for all, in India.

Two other health care related major announcements made by the FM in his 2018 Union Budget proposal are:

  • 24 new government medical colleges by upgrading existing district hospitals.  This is to bridge the gap between doctor-patient ratio in the country.
  • An allocation of ₹60 million for nutritional support to all tuberculosis patients – ₹ 500 per month per patient for 10 months, during the duration of their treatment.

The ‘Ayushman Bharat Program (ABP)’:

In this article, I shall not touch upon what expectations of pharma and healthcare industries were not met with the budget, as that will no more than an academic deliberation, at this stage. I shall rather restrict my discussion to ABP, for obvious reasons. This potential game changer, covers two commendable initiatives, as follows:

1. The New Health Protection Scheme (HPS) offering health insurance coverage of ₹500,000 per family per annum, is expected to take under its wings 100 million vulnerable families, or around 500 million beneficiaries. The total budgetary allocation for this mega proposal, for which the detail contours, apparently, are yet to be fleshed out and made public.

Some Senior Government officials, though, have put across its sketchy outline during post-budget Television coverage, on last Thursday. However, many industry watchers construe HPS as an expanded version, with a different name, of the current ‘Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY)’, which provides annual coverage of just ₹30,000 for poor families.

A fund of just ₹20 billion has been earmarked for this mega project in the Union Budget 2018-19.

2. Creation of 150,000 health and wellness centers to provide ‘comprehensive health care’ – for prevention and treatment of both communicable and non-communicable diseases (NCDS), including maternal/child health services, and free essential drugs alongside diagnostic services. This will “bring healthcare closer to home”, as the FM articulated.

A sum of ₹1.2 billion (₹1200 crore) had been allocated for this project in the 2018 budget proposal. The FM also requested contributions from the private sectors through CSR, besides philanthropic entities, in adopting these centers.

The points to ponder before saying ‘WOW!’

So far so good. However, as the saying goes, the devil is in the detail. From that angle, sans any meaningful details, does it look merely as an expression of the Government’ intent? Or it is for real! This serious doubt emanates from some key considerations. Three of which, as I reckon, are as follows:

I. Is it the beginning of implementation of the much-awaited National Health Policy 2017 (NHP), where the Government had committed and expenditure for UHC around 2.5 percent of the India’s GDP? This number currently hovers around 1.4 percent –  reportedly, less than even Nepal (2.3 percent) and Sri Lanka (2 percent). There is no mention of this in the Union Budget Proposal 2018, either, how much it will now go up to. By the way, the same report, as above, of January 2018 also indicated that health costs push 39 million Indians back into poverty, every year.

  • Attaining the NHP 2017 objectives, prompts a rise of around 40 percent in the public health expenditure of the Government. Whereas, the allocated reported expenditure for health in 2018-19 at ₹52.8 billion over the revised estimate of ₹50.1 billion in 2017/18. This works out to an increase of just around 5.4 percent.
  • The allocated expenditure of ₹20 billion for ABP in 2018-19, over the last year’s (2017-18) very similar health budget for ‘National Health Mission (NRM)’, reportedly, of ₹26.70 billion, looks rather pale. The financial arithmetic doesn’t appear to add up, defying simple logic. Is the allocation enough to support the ABP for 2018-19, even if the ABP funding is shared in the ratio of 60:40 between the Central and the State Governments?
  • Diving slightly deeper, on February 02, 2018, quoting a Government official Reuters reported, the cost of providing health insurance to 100 million vulnerable families or close to about half the country’s population would require an estimated ₹110 billion (USD$ 1.72 billion) in central and state funding each year.
  • The government estimates the cost of insuring each family would be about ₹1,100 rupees (US$17.15), the above report says. Curiously, on the face of it, this huge amount appears as an ‘off balance sheet’ expenditure, as of now.
  • Intriguingly, when the ABP is still not in place, there has been, reportedly, a 2.1 percent decline in the allocation towards the NRM in 2018-19. Currently, NHM provides financial support to States to strengthen the public health system, including upgradation of existing or construction of new infrastructure. In addition, there is a 7 percent cut in the allocation for the ‘Swachh Bharat Mission’ Budget from 2017-18’s revised estimates.

II. The second question is equally critical. Just as the erstwhile State Sales Tax (now a part of GST), healthcare is also a state subject. Thus, a similar process of intensive consultation with all State Governments, as happened before the implementation of GST, to take them on board, has to be replicated for a consensus. This will include a commitment for 60:40 funding, alongside the mechanisms for effective implementation of ABP – step by step. Has that happened? Have all the States agreed to contribute 40 percent of total funding requirements in their respective states for ABP?

  • If the answer is yes – excellent! If not, when will the ABP be rolled out? Different senior government officials have indicated different dates on Television. Some said on the Independence Day this year – August 15, 2018. Some other official said on October 02, 2018 – Gandhi Jayanti of this year. Yet another responsible official said the actual implementation may, actually, take even more time. This could mean only one thing, the ABP has been announced without any fixed timeframe for its implementation.

III. The third question lies in the effectiveness of insurance-driven health care system, such as in the United States. The key question often is raised on this system: Do the health insurance companies derive more benefit out of this system rather than the patients?

  • Concurring with the experts of many other countries, India’s own – Dr. (Professor) K. Srinath Reddy, globally acclaimed cardiologist and the President, Public Health Foundation of India, reportedly is also of the opinion that “Government-funded social insurance schemes do increase access to advanced care. But they have not been shown to provide financial protection as they cover only part of the hospitalization cost and none of the expense of prolonged outpatient care which forms a higher percentage of out-of-pocket spending.”
  • Insurance-driven healthcare has been found wanting to properly balancing health insurance costs with access, quality of care and outcomes in several countries. The experience of most of those people in India who can avail the benefits of insurance-driven – the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) or Employee State Insurance Schemes (ESIS), are not very pleasant, either.
  • On the other hand, despite some peripheral issues, many prefer, the government run UHC, such as in Britain. These generally offer a broader health coverage to all, and most health and care related services are available free to the citizens. The UHC is fully funded by taxes there, though a private health care system exists along with it. Thus, serious apprehensions related to the depth of health care access, reach in the rural heartland, and the quality of product and services to be generally provided by the insurance-driven new HPS, continue to haunt.

Conclusion:

Considering all these aspects, renamed HPS, as it was announced by the FM on February 01, 2018, and subsequent incongruent and very tentative clarifications expressed through the media by some Senior Government officials, raises even more questions than answers.

Sans any transparent and well-laid out financial road map, detail mechanism of its operation, level of involvement and consensus reached with all the States on funding and implementation, specific timeframe for its rollout, besides addressing almost a collapsing public health-infrastructure framework in most States, the Government appears rather unprepared with HCP rollout in 2018.

Does this announcement for HCP, therefore, not reflect a bit of haste, if not an intent to achieve any other non-related objective? Thus, this edict didn’t fetch a WOW moment to me, at least for this year, or…did it?

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.

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