Will AB-NHPM Mitigate Indian Healthcare Crisis?

Since long, hypes have created on several healthcare schemes in India, by the successive Governments of different political dispensation. These attracted mostly positive vibes at the time of announcements. Nevertheless, as we move on, a vast majority of Indians continues to live in the midst of a health care crisis, as it were.

The National Health Policy 2017 also acknowledges this crisis as it writes: ‘growing incidences of catastrophic expenditure due to health care costs, which are presently estimated to be one of the major contributors to poverty.’

More recently, the May 31, 2018 article, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) continued to echo the similar concern. It reiterated, since both government funding and social health insurance contributions are insufficient to meet health care needs of households, over three-fourth of all healthcare payments are paid Out of Pocket (OOP) at the point of service delivery while medicine purchase (approximately 63 percent) account for the single largest component of these payments.

A major cause of catastrophe and impoverishment at the household level is undoubtedly the OOP expenditure on health care, including medicines. According to the above BMJ paper, 29 million households, implying about 38 million persons were pushed into poverty in the year 2011–2012, only because of this reason. Although, this study was based on a cross- sectional analysis of ‘National Sample Survey data, 1994–2014’, the public health expenditure in India has not shown any significant increase since then, either. On the contrary, the public spending in some health-related areas has come down in the recent years.

Is a health care crisis primarily a ‘financial’ crisis?

The issue of budget allocation and adequate public expenditure on healthcare in India assumes significance to understand this point better. It is generally believed that ‘a health care crisis is primarily a ‘financial’ crisis in which countries cannot successfully meet people’s access to medicine due to the rising cost of health care services and, more importantly, pharmaceuticals.’ A sincere political will is absolutely necessary to resolve these issues, meaningfully – the paper points out.

But, there doesn’t seem to be any financial crisis in the country now, as the Government claims. India is the fastest growing nation in the world. Why is then the health care crisis continuing for the majority of Indian, if not worsening? Why isn’t public expenditure on health care increasing despite such spectacular financial achievements? Could it be due to lack of requisite political intent?

On paper all health care related schemes look good:

Yes, I reckon, on paper all health care related schemes look reasonably good, assuming these will be implemented well. These may include, National Health Missions (NHM) covering both rural and urban poor or even the likes of Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY). So is also the most recent one - Ayushman Bharat – National Health Protection Mission (AB-NHPM) announced by the Government during 2018-19 Union budget presentation and approved by the cabinet on May 21, 2018. However, its implementation on the ground seem to be wobbly, too. Thus, many wonders whether this new scheme on the block will help the nation tiding over the existing health care crisis.

I broadly discussed this subject on February 5, 2018, in this Blog. However, in this article, I shall try to ferret out the reasons of such apprehension on the AB-NHPM, against some critical parameters, just as illustrations:

Who contributes and how much to health expenditures: 

From the National Health Account Estimate (NHAE) of October 2017, one gets a broad idea of who contributes and roughly how much of the health expenditures in India, as follows:

Union Govt. State Govts. Local bodies Enterprises, including insurance NGOs External donors OOPE
8.2% 13.3% 0.7% 4.4% 1.6% 0.7% 67%

Where does the treatment take place?

Place Urban (%) Rural (%)
Public healthcare 21 28
Private healthcare 79 72

It is interesting to note, although private health care costs over 4 times more than the public healthcare, more patients are compelled to go for private health care. (Source: National Sample Survey 2014, Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation.)

Reasons for not using public health care facilities:

Around55.1percent of households are not using public health facilities.The reasons for not using public health care facilities by the members of the household when they fall sick, as reflected in the National Family Health Survey (NHFS) data, are interesting. Following are the main reasons:

Poor quality of care No nearby facility Long waiting time Inconvenient facility timing Health Personnel absent
48.1% 44.6% 40.90% 26.4% 14.8%

Addressing these reasons would help significant reduction in OOPE:

The February 2018 report of the ‘Centre for Technology and Policy Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras,’ vindicates this important point. It provides unambiguous evidence that strengthening the basic infrastructure of Health Sub-Centers (HSC), along with trained personnel and adequate medicines, ensure diversion of patients from expensive private facilities – increasing patients’ access to affordable health care. Consequently, OOP expenditure by families in health care and particularly medicines, sharply comes down.The study reported that such reduction in outpatient care varied between 77 percent and 92 percent in a pilot project on ensuring universal health coverage.

Break-up of healthcare expenditure – primary care costing the most:  

One gets a broad understanding on the general break-up of health care expenditure in India from the (NHAE) of October 2017, as follows:

Primary care Secondary care Tertiary care Patient transportation Governance & supervision
45.1% 35.6% 15.6% 4.6% 2.6%

It is worth noting that transportation costs are significant for many patients, just for accessing the existing public or private health care facilities, besides getting important diagnostic tests done, or even to buy many medicines. This expenditure would continue to exist, even if NHPS is put in place. On the other hand, strengthening the low-cost Government HSCs, would help greater patient access to health care, bringing down the OOPE, remarkably.

Currently, a sizeable number of reasonably decent medical treatment points, are located quite far from many villages. Thus, availing any decent health care facility by a large number of rural folks, no longer remains a matter of choice, up until the disease turns into a life-threatening one, due to protracted negligence. One such example is a large number of child deaths occurred at the state-run BRD Medical College hospital in the Gorakhpur city of Uttar Pradesh, in 2017. Most of them were brought in a critical condition from far-off villages.

Highest OOPE expenditure incurred for outpatient treatment:

According to the December 2016 publication titled ‘Household Health Expenditure in India’  of the Union Ministry of Health, one will get an idea of top 3 key consumption areas, out of the total OOPE on health care services, which are as follows:

Outpatient care Inpatient care Preventive care
54.84% 31.96% 4.26%

However, of the total OOPE, 53.46 percent was spent on medicines and 9.95 percent was spent on diagnostics. More importantly, 82.29 percent of the total OOP medicines expenditure and 67 percent of total OOP diagnostic expenditure were in outpatient treatment, the report highlights.

New NHPM excludes two major components of OOPE: 

Based on the above facts, it is interesting to note, while the maximum expenditure for health is incurred towards Primary Care and Outpatient treatment, the brand new NHPM does not cover both. In that case, how will it address the health care crisis in India and significantly reduce OOPE on health?

Does the total cost for AB-NHPM reflect in any budget allocation?

In this context, let me touch upon the other aspect of AB-NHPM, which is giving shape to 150,000 ‘Health and Wellness Centre (HWC)’ in India.On April 14, 2018, the first HWC – under the AB scheme was launched by the Prime Minister of India at Bijapur in Chhattisgarh.But, the fund allocated in the Union Budget 2018-19 for HWCs is just Rs. 120 million, which realistically is expected to support just around 10,000 HWCs. Whereas, 150,000 HWC would cost around Rs. 3 billion. The same issue of abysmal budgetary allocation, both by most of the state governments and the center, has been raised for NHPM, as well.

As we have seen in the chart of ‘who contributes and how much to current health expenditures’, that OOPE stands out, it should in no way be allowed to remain around that number in India, because of continuing low public health expenditure on health care.


Coming back to what I started from – the issue of ongoing health care crisis in India with incredibly high OOPE expenditure of the households on health. Many health care schemes have come, gone or about to be jettisoned – getting replaced by the tweaked versions of the old ones – of course in a new Avatar, supported by much expected media hypes, virtually terming it as a panacea. But, the key problem of sincere implementation of those schemes still lingers.

Sharp Government focus, backed by adequate budget allocation, on primary health care and bringing down outpatient treatment cost, which contribute to a high proportion of OOPE, remain as elusive as ever. Thus, I reckon, AB-NHPM is unlikely to mitigate the health care crisis in India, at least,in the short to medium term.

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.


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.