With Free Medicines In, Would The New Government Revisit ‘Universal Health Coverage’ Soon?

Friday last, the new Union Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan reportedly announced that the his ministry would soon start work on distributing free medicines through public hospitals across the country.

For this purpose the Minister would soon call a meeting of the State Health Ministers to integrate this policy with the National Health Mission (NHM). The said meeting will be held under the framework of the Central Council of Health (CCH), which also includes professional experts.

A commendable beginning:

This decision of Dr. Harsh Vardhan would revive a plan that the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had promised in his Independence Day speech to the nation in 2012, but could not be implement due to paucity of adequate fund. Implemented effectively, the above scheme has the potential to significantly reduce the Out-of-Pocket (OoP) expenditure on healthcare in India.

According to a 2012 study of IMS Consulting, expenditure on medicines still constitute the highest component of OoP expenses in OP care, though its percentage share has decreased from 71 percent in 2004 to 63 percent in 2012.  Similarly for IP care, the share of medicines in total OoP has also marginally decreased from 46 percent in 2004 to 43 percent in 2012.

However, it is worth noting that still 46 percent of patients seeking healthcare in public channels purchase medicines from private channels for non-availability. The new scheme hopefully would resolve this issue with sincerity, care and a sense of purpose.

For early success in this area, experts recommend that up and running Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan models of this scheme, which are most efficient and cost effective, should be replicated in rest of the states.

Recently announced drug procurement system through Central Medical Services Society (CMSS) after hard price negotiation with the manufacturers, and distribution of those drugs free of cost from the Government hospitals and health centers to the patients efficiently, could further add value to the process.

The cost and span:

Planning Commission 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.

“Universal Health Coverage” – Still remains the holistic approach:

That said, despite its immense importance, “distribution of free medicines” still remains just one of the key elements of Universal Health Coverage (UHC). It is expected that the new government would take a holistic view on the UHC agenda, sooner, to provide comprehensive healthcare services, including preventive care, to all citizens of the country.

According to another recent media report, the new Health Minister has already expressed a different viewpoint on this subject. Dr. Harsh Vardhan has reportedly said:

“I am not in favor of taxpayers’ money being used to push a one-size-fits-all health policy. From this morning itself, I have started contacting public health practitioners to know their minds on what should be the road ahead.”

Without deliberating much on the roll out of UHC as of now, the Minister promised that the government would work to provide ‘health insurance coverage for all’ through a National Insurance Policy for Health.

This statement is significant, because until recently, the ‘high level’ understanding was that the country, at least directionally, is in favor of public funded UHC, which was defined as follows:

“Ensuring equitable access for all Indian citizens, resident in any part of the country, regardless of income level, social status, gender, caste or religion, to affordable, accountable, appropriate health services of assured quality (promotive, preventive, curative and rehabilitative) as well as public health services addressing the wider determinants of health delivered to individuals and populations, with the government being the guarantor and enabler, although not necessarily the only provider, of health and related services”.

The groundwork started with ‘The HLEG Report :

Just to recapitulate, in October 2010, the Planning Commission of India constituted a ‘High Level Expert Group (HLEG)’ on UHC under the chairmanship of Dr. Prof. K. Srinath Reddy, President of the ‘Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI)’. The group was mandated to develop a framework for providing easily accessible and affordable health care to all Indians.

HLEG in its submission had suggested that the entire scheme would be funded by the taxpayers’ money for specified sets of healthcare services and for additional services commensurate health insurance coverage may be purchased by the individuals. Accordingly, to ensure a modest beginning of the UHC, in the 12th Five Year Plan Period, public expenditure on health was raised to 2.5 percent of the GDP.

UHC guarantees access to essential free health services for all:

Because of the uniqueness of India, HLEG proposed a hybrid system that draws on the lessons learnt from within India, as well as other developed and developing countries of the world.

The proposal underscored that UHC will ensure guaranteed access to essential health services for every citizen of India, including cashless in-patient and out-patient treatment for primary, secondary and tertiary care. All these services will be available to the patients absolutely free of any cost.

UHC provides options to patients:

Under the proposed UHC, all citizens of India would be free to choose between public sector facilities and ‘contracted-in’ private providers for healthcare services. It was envisaged that people would be free to supplement the free of cost healthcare services offered under UHC by opting to pay ‘out of pocket’ or going for private health insurance schemes.

What exactly is the new Health Minister mulling?

If the new Health Minister is mulling something different to provide similar healthcare coverage to Indians, let me now explore the other options adopted by various nations in this area.

As we know, UHC is a healthcare system where all citizens of a country are covered for the basic healthcare services. In many countries UHC may have different system types as follows:

  • Single Payer: The government provides insurance to all citizens.
  • Two-Tier: The government provides basic insurance coverage to citizens and allows purchase of additional voluntary insurance whenever a citizen wants to.
  • Insurance Mandate: The government mandates that insurance must be bought by all its citizens, like what happened in the USA in 2010 under ‘Obamacare’.

The Global scenario:

As per published reports, all 33 ‘developed nations’ (OECD countries) have UHC in place. America was the only exception, till President Barack Obama administration implemented its ‘path breaking’ healthcare reform policy in 2010 against tough political opposition.

India is already too late in providing UHC:

Based on an article titled, ‘ Analyzing our economy, government policy and society through the lens of cost-benefit’ published in ‘True Cost’, following is the list that states in which countries the UHC is currently in place and from when:

Country Start Date of Universal Health Care System Type
Norway 1912 Single Payer
New Zealand 1938 Two Tier
Japan 1938 Single Payer
Germany 1941 Insurance Mandate
Belgium 1945 Insurance Mandate
United Kingdom 1948 Single Payer
Kuwait 1950 Single Payer
Sweden 1955 Single Payer
Bahrain 1957 Single Payer
Brunei 1958 Single Payer
Canada 1966 Single Payer
Netherlands 1966 Two-Tier
Austria 1967 Insurance Mandate
United Arab Emirates 1971 Single Payer
Finland 1972 Single Payer
Slovenia 1972 Single Payer
Denmark 1973 Two-Tier
Luxembourg 1973 Insurance Mandate
France 1974 Two-Tier
Australia 1975 Two Tier
Ireland 1977 Two-Tier
Italy 1978 Single Payer
Portugal 1979 Single Payer
Cyprus 1980 Single Payer
Greece 1983 Insurance Mandate
Spain 1986 Single Payer
South Korea 1988 Insurance Mandate
Iceland 1990 Single Payer
Hong Kong 1993 Two-Tier
Singapore 1993 Two-Tier
Switzerland 1994 Insurance Mandate
Israel 1995 Two-Tier
United States 2010 Insurance Mandate

In-sync with the concept, probably with different means:

From the above statement of the new Health Minister, it appears that to provide healthcare coverage to all citizens of India, his ministry would work towards developing a National Health Insurance Policy. He also expressed that his ministry wants to focus on preventive healthcare.

Preventive healthcare being an integral part of UHC, it could well be that Dr. Harsh Vardhan wants to follow ‘Single Payer’ type of UHC system type.

Another school of thought:

However, another school of thought opines that a government owned efficient public healthcare system with adequate infrastructural facilities provides healthcare to patients almost free of cost as compared to the “insurance mandated” one.

This is mainly because, to address respective healthcare needs currently the patients have either or a mix of the following two choices:

  • Use public health facilities: Available virtually at free of cost if accessible, but quality is mostly questionable.
  • Use private health facilities: Virtually unregulated, much better services, though available mostly at high to very high cost.

Thus, these groups of experts believe that provision of universal health insurance for treatment at the expensive private facilities may not be cost effective even for the government, if these are not adequately regulated with appropriate stringent measures.

In absence of all those measures, the new Health Minister could consider taking a decision in favor of tax-funded UHC, with appropriate budgetary provisions and investments towards improving country’s healthcare infrastructure and its delivery mechanism for all.

Conclusion:

Be that as it may, there is not even an iota of doubt that India needs ‘Universal Health Coverage (UHC)’, like any OECD or other countries of the world for its citizens, sooner. Just distributing free medicines through public hospitals across the country for all, without a holistic approach such as UHC, may not yield desired results.

From the initial deliberations of Dr. Harsh Vardhan, it appears that UHC would soon not just be revisited, but receive a new thrust too, from the no-nonsense minister, probably leaning more towards private participation than with a public funded one, contrary to what was proposed by the HLEG.

Does it matter really? Well…

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.