On 2nd July 2015 at the International Conference on Public Policy (ICPP), Oxfam, together with Dr. Anuj Kapilashrami of the Global Public Health Unit, University of Edinburgh, convened a session entitled ‘Private sector and Universal Health Coverage: Examining evidence and deconstructing rhetoric’.
As an earlier blog explained, the session aimed to look at new and existing evidence on the role of the private for-profit sector in health, and to critically evaluate this in the context of achieving UHC in low- and middle-income countries. The five papers presented at the session looked at a wide range of private sector actors in health care delivery but raised a number of common themes and challenges.
High costs, and continued challenges around out-of-pocket spending (OOPS), was a common theme across the papers. One paper presented by Asha Kilaru, examined state insurance schemes in Karnataka, India, and found that OOPS were prevalent across the schemes, even where all costs should be covered. The study found 93% of those insured by at least one government scheme sought care from a private hospital, but only 8% reported receiving completely free care. Where healthcare was provided for free, additional costs (such as multiple hospital referrals for different tests and treatment) meant OOPS still occurred. It seems that this was a problem particularly associated with private provision of healthcare, as evidenced by one respondents’ interview:
‘Only the operation [C-section] was free. At the government hospital, a C-section would be only Rs3-4000, but we went to a private hospital since we had insurance and wound up spending so much. It seems like government are agents that send us to a private hospital. In this yojana [Yeshasvini insurance scheme] the government spends and we also spend’.[i]
Difficulties faced in controlling the level of fees charged by private providers were also highlighted. In a paper by Jane Doherty examining the for-profit private healthcare sector in East and Southern Africa, it was noted that out of sixteen countries, ‘no country places a ceiling on the prices that its private hospitals may charge’ (although there may be some limitations to reimbursement payments made by insurers in two of the countries). The paper also explained that ‘there is little control of the fees charged by health professionals or limits placed on their total incomes, except in Kenya’.
Equity and access for the poorest
Challenges in controlling OOPS and the overall costs of private healthcare present significant obstacles to achieving UHC, and especially to ensuring access to healthcare for the poorest. Another recurring barrier to equitable access highlighted is the location of private services. A paper mapping India’s private healthcare provision by Mukhopadhyay et al highlighted that urban, metropolitan areas benefit from the majority of private hospitals, while in rural areas, disproportionately populated by poorer people, the private sector is largely comprised of individual practitioners. Moreover, almost half of India’s private hospitals were located in cities with a population of more than 5 million. Mumbai alone has 16% of all India’s private hospitals.
Poor quality and regulatory challenges
Usar’s paper investigating perceptions of shops selling medicines in Nigeria highlighted major concerns around their ‘pervasive regulatory infringements’ – and especially the selling of drugs beyond the scope of their licenses – as well as the lack of training of staff. The same paper pointed to the challenges of regulating medicine vendors in Nigeria in order to improve their quality, highlighting that regulation has been constrained by inadequate funding, weak institutional capacity, the often-remote location of the shops, and inter-regulatory agency conflicts.
Doherty’s research examining East and Southern Africa’s for-profit private providers pointed out that both an absence of regulation, and poor enforcement of regulation where it exists, contribute to problematic dynamics around private sector healthcare actors there. We have already heard how little legislation exists to control costs within the sector, but the study also found that that there is almost no regulation that guards against anti-competitive behaviour. Furthermore, ‘there is little monitoring by governments of quality and health outcomes, or attention to how the private health sector supports national health objectives’.
The same paper flags additional challenges to regulation, including patchy regulatory frameworks, the high cost of introducing new regulation, limited available information on the private sector, and the resistance of key stakeholders to regulation, or their “capture” of regulation to safeguard their own interests. In South Africa, for example, attempts to regulate dispensing fees for pharmacists have been resisted heavily.
Impact on the public system
Doherty concludes that ‘legislative gaps and enforcement problems, together with the fact that prices are not contained in any meaningful way, either through price controls or active reimbursement mechanisms, mean that for-profit private care in the region is likely to become increasingly unaffordable for any but the wealthiest’. Yet, if the for-profit private sector is poorly regulated and potentially growing, what impact could this have on the public health system left for the majority of the population?
Doherty points to South Africa as an example, where one impact of a strong private sector has been the ‘brain drain’ of human resources away from the public sector to much more lucrative private providers. The final paper by Jisha C. J., examining a state health insurance scheme in India (Kerala), highlights an additional worrying trend, where some private hospitals register in the state insurance scheme, only to de-register themselves once they have attracted some new patients to their facility. It can be assumed this trend will waste public resources spent on administration, as well as raising serious concerns about both equitable access and the behaviour of private providers.
The evidence presented at the Oxfam-University of Edinburgh session makes a further contribution to the debates over the role of the private sector in achieving UHC. While the papers can only shed light on the specific areas they analyse, it is clear that the wider themes they highlight chime with the findings of broader studies on the comparative roles of the public and private sectors.
Oxfam hopes to continue these discussions further, and will be hosting additional blogs on Global Health Check from the contributing authors and discussants exploring the details of the evidence presented in the coming months.
[i] The paper notes that ‘while it is claimed that [the] Yeshasvini [scheme] is self-funded, it received Rs. 40 crore as a government grant in 2012-13 and Rs. 45 crore in the 2013-14 budget’. Rs 40 crore is equivalent to more than USD 6 million while Rs 45 crore is equivalent to almost USD 7 million.
As the Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa ends, we present the case for financing health care in India. India is losing vast sums of potential tax money that could finance universal health coverage (UHC) while at the same time decreasing the health budget and promoting private finance and delivery of health services. A recent Oxfam India paper explores available evidence around financing healthcare for all in India and offers recommendations.
1. The potential for tax funding
Free services like healthcare and education are vital to fight poverty and inequality yet India is being denied the resources to fund them. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that developing countries are three times more vulnerable to base erosion and profit shifting activities of multinational companies- they lose 0.84% of GDP in the short run, compared to 0.23% lost by OECD countries. Recent research covering 1500 Multi-National Companies (MNCs) in India showed that those with links to tax havens reported 1.5 % less profit than those with no such links – a strong indication that the former are engaged in profit shifting (a global euphemism for cheating) more intensively than those with no tax haven links.
A study in 2013 showed that according to official sources, the amounts involved in mispricing –manipulation by over-invoicing of imports and under-invoicing of exports- in India ran at US$8.1bn in 2010-11, escalating to US$12.6bn in 2011-12. Corporation tax of 33% on these amounts would have provided US$6.9bn that could have helped fund free quality public services for all in India.
The Indian government can raise funds to invest in public services from a better tax system. The latest report from Global Financial Integrity lists India among the top five countries in the world with almost half a trillion dollars lost in illicit outflows in the past decade alone. Just to compare, India’s annual central expenditure on health and rural housing put together is $ 5.4billion.
India’s tax to GDP ratio is among the lowest of all G20 countries- far below other BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Moreover, the revenue foregone due to tax exemptions by the central government is estimated to be 43.2% of total tax revenue for the year 2014-15, or nearly 5% of India’s GDP. This shows that there indeed are alternative sources that can generate more resources for health.
2. Current financing model and the impact on service use
Out of pocket (OOP) expenditures push an estimated 60 million Indians into poverty every year. User charges still remain in the public healthcare system. The overall public spending hovers at about 1% of GDP – the corresponding figures are around 4.5% for Brazil and 8% for the United Kingdom. During 1986-87, about 60% of the hospitalised cases were treated by the government institutions in urban and rural areas. In 2004, this figure fell to about 40%, reflecting the poor public spending on health. Fortunately, the following decade saw focused attention on rural areas through increased health spending on improving infrastructure in rural India, which is slowly yielding results. Most deliveries across urban and rural areas are now taking place in government hospitals as the following chart shows.
This is a remarkable result given that government funded schemes across the country offered incentives to deliveries in private sector facilities. It shows that people’ trust in the public sector has improved.
The shift towards demand side financing was based on a rationale from survey findings during 1987-2004. The argument that even the poor preferred the private sector by 2004 however ignores the fact that this was a period when the public sector was systematically starved of resources and market principles were introduced into the system. Forgone care due to financial reasons had doubled between 1986-87 and 2004, from 15% in rural and 10% in urban areas to 28% and 20% respectively. Data for more recent years will be available by next year.
The spending cuts on public services in the central budget of 2015-16 are deeply concerning. Not only was the total allocations for health cut by about $945 million, but other budget cuts would affect peoples’ health too. For example the allocation to the child nutrition scheme was cut by half. At the same time, according to latest available estimates, 48% of children under the age of five are stunted due to chronic under-nutrition, with 70% being anaemic.
3. Where the money should be spent: The privatisation trend
Unfortunately, there seems to be a trend against expansion of public sector provision of service especially from influential think tanks such as Niti Aayog, which just replaced India’s Planning Commission. A recent book co-authored by Niti Aayog Vice Chairperson advises against any further expansion of free primary, secondary, and tertiary health care services in the public sector. Instead, it advises the government to focus on providing financial resources to the poor so that they can buy services. It even calls for the government to insist on full cost recovery.
Niti Aayog’s latest Working Paper on financing healthcare too veers dangerously towards privatised financing for health care which excludes poor people; unsustainable programs based on Corporate Social Responsibility and Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) without examining the evidence of effectiveness or problems of any of these approaches.
 according to the OECD the term refers to tax planning strategies that exploit gaps and mismatches in tax rules to make profits ’disappear’ for tax purposes or to shift profits to locations where there is little or no real activity but the taxes are low, resulting in little or no overall corporate tax being paid.
 Still, 60% of all people from the bottom 20% were getting hospitalised in the public sector in 2004.
 The Planning Commission was an institution in the Government of India which formulated India’s Five-Year Plans, among other functions.
Private for profit and UHC: a panel discussion at the International Conference on Public Policy, Milan 1-3 July 2015
In 2012, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution to encourage governments to transition towards universal access to affordable and quality health-care services. In 2013, the WHO Director-General described UHC as “the single most powerful concept that public health has to offer”.
A range of financing and delivery mechanisms have since been implemented in diverse international contexts, with limited empirical evaluation of their potential to achieve equitable access to universal health coverage. Financing health care will be negotiated as part of the Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa in July 2015.
There is strong evidence that no country has achieved or made big strides towards achieving UHC without a strong public health system, yet the position of the private-for-profit sector in UHC reforms remains a subject of wide debate.
At the International Conference on Public Policy in Milan (1-4 July 2015), Oxfam and the University of Edinburgh are co-hosting panel discussion that seeks to examine new and existing evidence on the role of the private sector in health – and the paradigm of public- private partnerships. The session aims to enhance understanding and knowledge of the nature and scope of public-private interactions in health, and to critically evaluate the role of the private for-profit sector in health in the context of achieving UHC in low- and middle-income countries. The session will do this by:
The session will have a strong focus on low- and middle-income country experiences, perspectives and debates, but will also welcome relevant evidence and experience from high-income countries.
Five papers will be presented covering the following:
The papers will be discussed by Dr. Mark Hellowell, University of Edinburgh and Professor Rama Baru from Jawaharlal Nehru University.
The session will be co-chaired by Anuj Kapilashrami from the University of Edinburgh and Mohga Kamal-Yanni from Oxfam. Chairs and discussants will also engage the audience through ‘question and answer sessions where panellists will reflect on substantive issues raised by the presentations, panellists’ own research and interjection from the audience.
Readers are invited to participate in the session via sending comments and questions via twitter. Please follow @MohgaKamalYanni @Akapilashrami
Look out for a follow up blog on the conclusions of the session and links to the presentations.
The research papers are available here.
In its seminal World Health Report of 2010, WHO argued that all countries can make progress towards Universal Health Coverage (UHC) by expanding the number of people covered by effective health services and giving them financial protection from the costs of these services. The report also highlighted the pivotal role of equitable health financing reforms in achieving this objective. These processes ought to be easier in wealthy countries, but even in the world’s biggest economy, due to an inequitable financing system, tens of millions of people still lack effective health coverage.
In Malawi (with a GDP per capita 1/226 of the United States) the health financing situation is particularly challenging. This is especially the case following the suspension of considerable sums of aid financing after the “Cashgate” corruption scandal that brought down the former government. So, faced with a high burden of unmet health needs, a heavily constrained government budget and uncertain levels of external funding, how should Malawi take its next steps towards UHC?
With the public financing situation looking bleak, a knee-jerk reaction might be to look for alternative financing sources and in particular to raise health funds directly from the population – in the form of user fees. But evidence from across the continent over the last thirty years shows that this would be a mistake. Charging patient fees would raise very little revenue, would incur high administration costs and most worryingly would exclude millions of poor Malawians from receiving healthcare. Also with the world looking to build resilient health systems in the aftermath of the Ebola epidemic it would be extremely unwise to suddenly create new access barriers to essential health services.
While concerns around fee-paying wards and bypass fees remain, fortunately, the government recently made clear statements to the effect that the majority of services will remain free at the point of delivery.. Not only is this good news for the health and welfare of the population, it is a smart political move by the Government, who may have remembered the last time they introduced health fees following advice from ex-pat advisers. This was soon after independence when new health charges were met with extensive hostility from the population. This triggered a political crisis and resulted in some ministers losing their jobs. Following this lesson of people power, Malawi was one of the few African countries not to bow to donor pressure to introduce fees in the 1980s, when it continued to provide universal free health care. This undoubtedly contributed to Malawi outperforming some of its neighbours in making progress towards the health-related MDGs. With many other African countries now learning that they too should remove user fees, it would be a tragedy for Malawi to move in the opposite direction.
But if user fees aren’t the answer and with private voluntary insurance also proving an ineffective route to UHC, what steps could the Government of Malawi (GoM) take towards reforming its health financing system? As the 2010 World Health Report and subsequent influential reports have shown, the key to achieving UHC lies in public financing reforms. In particular, it requires increasing levels of pooled public financing and in maximizing the efficiency and equitable allocation of these funds. In terms of raising higher amounts of domestic funding, broader public financing reforms could increase the size of the overall government’ budget and a political choice could be made to increase the health share from 8.6 % towards the Abuja target of 15%. Also, it is to be hoped that aid financing will increase again in the near future because external assistance will be essential for Malawi for at least the medium term if it is to reach adequate levels of public health financing.
But to secure this additional funding, perhaps the best strategy for the health sector will to demonstrate to its domestic and external financing sources that it can deliver rapid results with incremental allocations in funding. This will involve investing additional funds in cost-effective interventions that extend health coverage to more people in Malawi – and especially to the poor and vulnerable.
One immediate “quick-win” along these lines, could be to ensure that people relying on NGO facilities in remote areas also receive free services. This would require increasing government grants to these facilities. In fact this is already a policy priority for the new Government. Fast-tracking this reform would bring health and economic benefits to the communities concerned and political benefits to the government. Looking at UHC success stories in other countries, the government of Malawi and donor partners could also achieve rapid progress by implementing extensive supply-side reforms. For example Rwanda and Ethiopia have made spectacular progress in extending coverage through scaling up services provided through publicly-funded community health workers. Also implementing extensive reforms of medicines supply systems to ensure the provision of free generic medicines and health commodities has proved a very effective way to increase coverage of essential services. Furthermore these types of pro-poor initiatives could prove an attractive proposition for donors wanting to re-engage in Malawi’s health system.
Therefore even though the health financing situation may appear daunting in Malawi, this doesn’t mean that a completely new strategy based on private financing will be the solution. International evidence shows that this would probably result in a deterioration in health coverage – particularly for the poor. Instead Malawi would be better advised to learn from its own history and re-invigorate its publicly financed health system, which as the world has learnt is the proven route to achieve universal health coverage.
Levy J 2015 In U.S., Uninsured Rate Dips to 11.9% in First Quarter Gallup 13 April 2015 Available at http://www.gallup.com/poll/182348/uninsured-rate-dips-first-quarter.aspx Accessed 23 June 2015
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Tran M 2014 Malawi aid freeze could hit health and education sectors The Guardian 14 January 2014 Available at http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/jan/14/malawi-aid-freeze-health-education Accessed 23 June 2015
Yates R 2009 Universal health care and the removal of user fees The Lancet Volume 373, No 9680 pages 2078 to 2081 available at http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(09)60258-0/abstract Accessed 23 June 2015
Heymann D L et al 2015 Global health security: the wider lessons from the west African Ebola virus disease epidemic The Lancet, Volume 385 , Issue 9980 , 1884 – 1901 available at http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(15)60858-3/fulltext Accessed 23 June 2015
Chauwa A 2015 Malawi govt backtracks on hospital user fees Nyasa Times April 5 2015 Available at http://www.nyasatimes.com/2015/04/06/malawi-govt-backtracks-on-hospital-user-fees/ Accessed 23 June 2015
Messac L 2014 Moral hazards and Moral Economies: The Combustible Politics of Healthcare User Fees in Malawian History South African Historical Journal Volume 66 Issue 2 Available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02582473.2014.903292?journalCode=rshj20#.VYmGt1xa_ww Accessed 23 June 2015
Cortez R et al 2014 Achieving MDGs 4 & 5: Malawi’s progress on maternal and child health The World Bank Knowledge Brief 92548 Available at http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2014/11/11/000406484_20141111141118/Rendered/PDF/925480BRI0Box30August0201400PUBLIC0.pdf Accessed 23 June 2015
Chuma J, Mulupi S, McIntyre D Providing Financial Protection and Funding Health Service Benefits for the Informal Sector Evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa RESYST Working paper 2 April 2013
Evans DB et al 2010 The World Health Report Health Systems Financing – The Path to Universal Coverage The World Health Organization
Mogombo K 2015 Gondwe unveils MK901.6 billion 2015/2016 Budget Mana online 25 May 2015 Available at http://www.manaonline.gov.mw/index.php/business/item/3011-gondwe-unveils-mk9016-billion-20152016-budget Accessed 23 June 2015
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Joychen P J 2013 Free medicine scheme makes a big splash in Rajasthan Deccan Herald 8 February 2013 Available at http://www.deccanherald.com/content/310818/free-medicine-scheme-makes-big.html Accessed 23 June 2015
In recent weeks, two separate reports have been released which critique the trend by DFID to increasingly involve the private sector in development, including the provision of health and education.
The first report by Global Justice Now maps a variety of initiatives supported by DFID to open up health and education markets to private firms – from a £25 million project with Adam Smith International aiming to enrol 50,000 more children in private schools in Kenya, to a £7million partnership with Coca-Cola on girls’ education and training in Nigeria. This latter scheme is part of a broader DFID-Coca-Cola collaboration which openly benefits the company’s sales plans, the report reveals. DFID’s support of HANSHEP – or ‘Harnessing Non State Actors for Better Health for the Poor’ – gets a particular profile too, including through their £35 million contribution to a Public-Private Partnerships advisory facility. DFID’s influence is shown to extend beyond the financial commitments it makes, through its advice to governments as they develop private sector-friendly policies for the delivery of services.
The second report by the UK Government’s aid watchdog, Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), reviews how DFID is working with the private sector to achieve its mandate to tackle poverty around the world. Worryingly it states that ‘DFID should reassess how it appraises, monitors and evaluates its engagements with business to ensure fitness for purpose and a sharper focus on the poor’ and that ‘In some cases… we are not confident that DFID’s support is additional to what businesses would have done anyway’.
For Oxfam, the dangers of the promotion of privatisation of health and education services, especially in relation to the rising tide of global inequality, are clear. Private services benefit the richest first and foremost, leaving people in poverty behind[i]. When health care is sold through the private sector for example, quality care and medicines are often available only to those who can afford it, while poor people may be forced to rely on low-quality or unqualified care like drug hawkers and grocery shops selling medicines[ii].
Indeed ICAI’s report notes that a survey undertaken of a HANSHEP programme operating in Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria – the African Health Markets for Equity – found ‘that less than 1% of people using facilities supported by AHME were from the bottom income quintile in Ghana and other participating countries’.
Prioritising the private sector can see public services eroded as scarce financial and human resources are diverted from the public to the private system, through an internal ‘brain drain’ and expensive public-private contracts. Oxfam’s exposé of a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) hospital in Lesotho, found that the hospital was costing at least three times the amount of the old public hospital it was built to replace for example, amounting to 51% of the total health budget for the entire country[iii]. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) – manager of the DFID-supported PPP advisory facility mentioned above – advised on this PPP arrangement, reaping a $720,000 ‘success fee’ for its work[iv].
When richer people opt out of public systems for health care and education, they also have minimal interest in promoting spending on public services or demanding better quality, as well as less incentive to pay taxes. Thus a downward spiral of deteriorating quality can be set in motion[v]. The result is a 3 tiered system of five star services for the richest people, and a mixture of deteriorated public and unqualified private providers for the poorest. Inequality and poverty thrive.
The same tiered system also develops in education, where children of rich families often attend elite private schools and universities, while poor and lower-middle class children may have a choice between poor quality private education or deteriorating public schools. DFID, as well as other donors such as the World Bank, has been heavily promoting for-profit “low-cost private schools” for delivering better learning outcomes. However, the evidence on quality in these schools is weak. They rely on untrained teachers, standardization and scripted lessons to keep costs down. Moreover, we know that any kind of school fees – as well as other related costs like uniforms and transportation – will block access to schooling for children from the poorest families. Relying on fee-charging schools to deliver education will mean that too many of the world’s future Einsteins and Beethovens will be lost – shut out from accessing a quality education because of their poverty.
Profit-making companies also have clear interests in pushing for their own increased role in social sectors. In South Africa, private health insurance firms have been accused of lobbying against a new National Health Insurance Scheme that promises to provide essential health care for all.[vi] In the USA alone, the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors spent more than $487m on lobbying in 2013, more than was spent by any other sector[vii].
Debates on the role of public and private actors in health and education are increasingly relevant as the development community prepares for this summer’s Financing for Development (FFD) summit, where mechanisms for financing the new post-2015 development goals will be discussed. A submission led by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) responding to the draft negotiating text for the Summit, pushes the insertion of new language to promote ‘blended finance’ (public and private) and a bigger role for private finance, including ‘using limited public finance to mobilize private’. In one shocking suggestion, the submission also advocates for the commitment to ‘move away from harmful, unsustainable [private sector investments]’ to be deleted too.
It is critical that any public funds used to leverage private investment, and private finance generally, comply with development effectiveness principles and be subject to robust environmental and social safeguards, be fully transparent and accountable, and be equitable in risk and benefit sharing between governments, donors and private investors. Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) should be considered only where evidence of effectiveness is abundant and where alternative delivery options are not. Sustainable development criteria for PPPs should be adopted and endorsed by the private sector and by governments. Such criteria should also include the PPP design and implementation process being fully owned by the ostensible beneficiaries, full transparency of contracts and terms, and assessment in terms of equitable and affordable access to infrastructure and services. Oxfam, together with other agencies, have developed a series of sustainable development principles to guide how public-backed private finance is used.
DFID should learn from past experiences and revise its support for private sector financing and delivery of these critical services, prioritising instead investments in strong public services that can deliver universal health coverage and education for all.
[i] Basu et al found that the private sector in health care tends to serve higher socio-economic groups for example. Basu et al (2012) ‘Comparative Performance of Private and Public Healthcare Systems in Low- and Middle-Income Countries: A Systematic Review’, PLoS Medicine, Vol. 9., Issue 6. http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/fetchObject.action?uri=info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001244&representation=PDF
[ii] Oxfam (2009) ‘Blind Optimism. Challenging the myths about private health care in poor countries’, pp.10-12, http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/blind-optimism-challenging-the-myths-about-private-health-care-in-poor-countries-114093
[iii] Oxfam (2014) ‘A Dangerous Diversion. Will the IFC’s flagship health PPP bankrupt Lesotho’s Ministry of Health?’ http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/a-dangerous-diversion-will-the-ifcs-flagship-health-ppp-bankrupt-lesothos-minis-315183
[v] T. Smeeding (2005) ‘Public Policy, Economic Inequality, and Poverty: The United States in Comparative Perspective’, Social Science Quarterly, Vol. 86 (suppl): 955-83.
[vii] Oxfam (2015) ‘Wealth: Having It All and Wanting More’. https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/wealth-having-it-all-and-wanting-more
The Ebola crisis exposed the weaknesses of healthcare systems in low- and middle-income countries created mainly by insufficient funding. Given the global community’s commitment to universal health coverage (UHC), the Ebola outbreak has prompted serious reflection among health policy decision-makers. One of the central features of this debate is financing: how can relatively poor countries find the money to pay for universal health coverage? To date, low- and middle-income countries have been growing toward UHC through social health insurance systems funded through employment. Yet, progress has been slow and uneven leaving people in the informal sector, who are the majority of the population, out was insurance schemes. Rather than seeking innovative solutions to this old problem, what is needed is a renewed commitment to an old solution: tax-based financing.
Taxation has sometimes been overlooked in debates around financing UHC. The Lancet’s recent Global Health 2035 commission only discussed taxation in the context of specific consumption taxes on risky behaviours, such as tobacco and alcohol. These so-called “sin taxes” are important public health measures but they are unlikely to generate sufficient revenue to finance UHC. Instead, low- and middle-income countries should look to translate economic growth into healthcare spending through general taxation.
Using data from low- and middle-income countries my colleagues and I examined the association between tax revenues and health spending. We found that tax revenue was a major statistical determinant of progress towards UHC. Each $10 per-capita increase in tax revenue was associated with an additional $1 of public health spending per capita. Whereas each $10 increase in GDP per capita was associated with an increase of $0.10. Crucially, tax revenues sit on the pathway between economic growth and health spending. In short, tax financing is an efficient way of translating economic growth into health spending.
Countries with more tax revenues have also made more progress on other indicators of UHC, even after adjusting for economic activity in the country. Among tax poor countries, greater tax revenues are associated with more women being attended by a skilled healthcare worker during pregnancy and greater access to healthcare for all people.
How taxes are collected is also important. Governments can choose how they collect tax revenues. The IMF and World Bank traditionally split these modes of taxation into three types: 1) Taxes on income, profits, and capital gains, which tend to be progressive because the poor pay a smaller proportion of their income; 2) Taxes on goods and services, which tend to be regressive because the poor pay a larger share of their income; and 3) Other taxes, such as property taxes. In recent years, low- and middle-income countries have tended to rely more heavily on taxes on goods and services because they are easier to collect. However, they can also increase the cost of staple foods and healthcare, unless these specific goods and services are exempt from such taxation. Because taxes on goods and services can increase the cost of food and healthcare they may also reduce access to these necessities among economically deprived households and communities.
With the same tax data described above, we examined whether changes in taxation within a country over time was associated with changes in infant mortality. The results were clear. Where taxes on goods and services increase (thereby increasing the cost of food and healthcare) infant mortality also increased. However, where taxes on income, profits, and capital gains increase (progressive taxation) we do not find this same relationship.
Expanding the tax base in low- and middle-income countries can be difficult, especially if governments are going to rely on income, profits, and capital gains. This is because there is a very large informal economy in many of these countries, tax revenues from income can be unstable. Yet, the UK government has shown how some countries can increase revenues through reducing corporate tax evasion. Under the direction of DFID, tax accountants worked with two developing countries (Ethiopia and Tanzania) to reduce tax evasion, increasing tax revenues by 40% in 3 years. This type of intervention is especially important because before the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, only one in five leading mining companies had paid any corporate income tax. If they had been adopted sooner, such interventions could have strengthened the health systems in Sierra Leona and other Ebola-hit countries.
Tax is not sexy. Tax is not necessarily innovative. But, tax is the cornerstone on which we can achieve UHC.
This post is based on: Reeves A., Gourtsoyannis Y., Basu S., McCoy D., McKee M., Stuckler D., 2015, Financing universal health coverage: effects of alternative tax structures on public health systems in 89 low- and middle-income countries. The Lancet, http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(15)60574-8/abstract