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Why Brazil should not take a U-turn on its health system, by Pallavi Gupta, Health Programme Coordinator, Oxfam India

Brazil has been the envy of the world in terms of its successes in reducing health inequality. Yet recent developments threaten its health achievements. This blog looks at the potential impact of recently announced policies on the public health system in Brazil by exploring how similar policies have played out in the Indian health system.

Brazil: success and threats

In response to its commitment to the 1978 Alma-Ata declaration of “health for all”, the constitution of Brazil enshrined health as a right of all citizens in 1988, thereby mandating the state to provide universal and equal access to health services to its population [1]. A long political struggle and the Brazilian Health Reform Movement led to the establishment of the Unified Health System (SUS) [2]. The SUS decentralized and universalised access to health care, with municipalities providing comprehensive and free health care, financed by the states and federal government [1]. Primary health care (PHC) has been key to Brazil’s health reform strategy. PHC integrates medical care with health promotion and public health actions. Family health-care teams, comprising one doctor, one nurse, one auxiliary nurse, and four to six community health workers are assigned per 600–1000 families [2]. Despite opposition from the private health sector as well as underfunding, the SUS has managed to vastly improve access to primary and emergency care, reach universal coverage of vaccination and prenatal care, and invest in the expansion of human resources and technology, including the production of essential medicines [2]. Since 2000, the government has been investing 3 to 4 % of GDP in health [3]. Consequently, fertility rates in Brazil decreased from 5·8 per woman in 1970 to 1·9 in 2008, and infant mortality reduced from 114 per 1000 live births in 1970 to 19·3 per 1000 live births in 2007 [2].

Furthermore, in response to protests by Brazilians demanding better access to physicians, Brazil sourced doctors from the country and from Cuba as part of its “More Physicians” (Mais Médicos) programme introduced in 2013 by Dilma Rousseff’s government. This additional workforce benefited 63 million Brazilians living in remote and vulnerable areas, which previously had shortages of health professionals [4]. Today, 70 to 80% of the country’s more than 190 million people rely on SUS for their healthcare needs [2[4].

However, the austerity measures proposed by the new government after the impeachment on August 31st 2016 and approved by the senate in December 2016 include the control of public spending for 20 years, which will have an impact on public education and public health services. Another measure that has been controversial since the interim government (from May to August 2016) is the creation of a plan to encourage people to seek healthcare from private providers instead of the country’s public health system, while the government is ending the monitoring of the private health-care sector. There are also attempts to diminish the role of public health care as evident by the staff cuts in the National Unified Health System. There is also a possibility of reduction in the number of foreign professionals in the country’s “More Physicians” programme [4].

Learning from India

Will looking at the fate of people in India make the new President and Minister of Health of Brazil think again about their plan? What the Brazilian government is planning to dismantle is exactly what civil society organisations and health rights groups have been calling to be established in India for decades. 70% of the out-patient care in India is sought from the private sector and nearly 60% of healthcare expenditure in the country is paid out-of-pocket by people at time of use [5]. One of the reasons for this is the abysmal state of the public health system in the country which has forever been underfunded, at a meagre 1.28% of GDP5. Shortages of health staff is a huge challenge that India faces, especially in the rural and tribal areas. The private healthcare industry, that has been growing by leaps and bounds, is largely unregulated and enjoys tax sops in more ways than one [5]. The central government passed the Clinical Establishment (Registration and Regulation) Act 2010 to regulate private medical services across the country, so that the patients can get good quality services with some control over their cost [6]. However, the whole private health care industry, including the Indian Medical Association (a private voluntary association of doctors) has been protesting the implementation of the Act and the sector continues to operate more or less on its own terms, leaving patients at their mercy.

Oxfam India supported the collection of testimonies of 78 rationally practicing doctors who shared the inside stories of how private healthcare operates in an “industry mode” and how patients are frequently fleeced of their money and right to care [7]. For example, a pathologist in a leading Indian city hospital gave a fake report declaring a patient diabetic (when his blood sugar was normal) on the suggestion of the doctor who had referred the patient. By doing so, the doctor ensured having a long term patient under his care who would be a continuous source of income. And this is not a one-off case.

The results of the proposed measures in the Brazilian public health system can be seen in Indian healthcare.

As the saying goes, “to make, it takes one lifetime, and to break, it takes one day”. India’s one life time for progressive changes is still to come but Brazil’s “one day to break” is right here. Given the impact that we witness everyday of a weak health system on people, we can only hope that the Brazilian public health system does not take a U-turn and tread the India Path.


[1] Flawed but fair: Brazil’s health system reaches out to the poor, Bulletin of the World Health Organization, Volume 86, Number 4, April 2008, 241-320. (accessed 7 December 2016)

[2] Jairnilson Paim, Claudia Travassos, Celia Almeida, Ligia Bahia, James Macinko. The Brazilian health system: history, advances, and challenges. Lancet 2011; 377: 1778–97

[3] (accessed 30 November 2016)

[4] Katarzyna Doniec, Rafael Dall’Alba, Lawrence King. Austerity threatens universal health coverage in Brazil. Lancet 2016; 388:687

[5] Vikram Patel, Rachana Parikh, Sunil Nandraj, et al. Assuring health coverage for all in India. Lancet 2015; 386: 2422–35. (accessed 30 November 2016)

[6] The Clinical Establishments (Registration and Regulation) Act, 2010, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India. (accessed 30 November 2016)

[7] Voices of Conscience from the Medical Profession. Support for Advocacy and Training to Health Initiatives, Oxfam India 2015.


An odd one out or part of the same system? By Mohga Kamal-Yanni, Senior health policy advisor, Oxfam

“It was a business decision. It was about money. And screw you.” A journalist said after talking to Martin Shkreh the CEO of Turin, the US-based pharmaceutical company. The company shocked the US when it raised the price of daraprim, a 62 years old medicine by 5000% from $13.5 to $750 per tablet. The US Pharmaceutical companies association (PhRMA) was quick to tweet that “.@TuringPharma does not represent the values of @PhRMA member companies.”So is PhRMA right?

In reality Turin represents a typical symptom of the same disease: putting profit before patients. Otherwise how can we explain the escalating price of new (and sometimes old) medicines not only in Europe and US but also in low and middle income countries? Take Gilead’s medicine that cures hepatitis C as an example. Sofosbuvir (marketed as Sovaldi) was launched at $1000/pill/day. Even at the reduced price offered to some countries, the price is too high. We estimated that treating just half patients suffering with hepatitis C would have cost the Egyptian ministry of health nearly two thirds of its budget.

New cancer medicines are reaching the market at exorbitantly priced and thus unaffordable in most countries even in Europe and the US. NICE, the body that advises the UK’s NHS on medicines rejected Roche’s breast cancer medicine trastuzumab emtansine (Kadcyla) not because of ineffectiveness but because of its high price. Needless to say the price is far beyond the dreams of patients in developing countries.

Patients and advocates for access to medicines have been campaigning on access to medicines in developing countries for years. Their success is clear when the price of the anti-HIV cocktail dropped from US$ 10,000/patient/year to around US $100. Now similar actions have started in rich countries too. One of these groups sent a letter to Jeremy Hunt the UK secretary of health urging him to issue a compulsory license that enables the importation of cheaper versions of the same medicine so that women are not denied a life saving treatment.

Having “temporary” monopoly over pricing seems to be not enough for pharmaceutical companies. Pharma lobbyists carry significant influence in the corridors of power pressurising governments to design and enforce rules that exceed what is already agreed at the WTO through the TRIPS[1] agreement.

Intense lobbying to increase intellectual property rules in free trade agreements has created global public anger. Last September a cancer patient was arrested when she was accused of disrupting the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The recently concluded TPP negotiations were carried out over more than five years in secret and the text will only be available for elected bodies and the public when it is ready for signing.

Free trade agreements (FTAs) like the TPP are notorious for expanding corporate powers at the expense of public health and the public interest. For example, the FTAs allow corporations to sue governments over measures to promote access to medicines (such as price controls, reimbursement decisions, marketing approvals, and drug safety decisions, or stricter patentability standards). Corporations argue that such measures would damage their investments, which they insist must be protected by the FTAs. This is already happening as Eli Lily has taken the Canadian government to court over government action to make some drugs affordable.

Similar damaging FTAs are currently being negotiated –also behind closed doors- between the EU and Thailand, India and the US.

Moreover, when developing countries try to use legal tools to control or decrease prices, they are put under huge pressure from rich countries under the influence of ‘big pharma’. When Thailand issued compulsory licensing for key medicines to treat HIV and cardiovascular diseases, ‘big pharma’ launched intense pressure on the country to revoke the decision. Under the influence of ‘big pharma’, the US trade representative put Thailand on the Special 301 ‘Priority Watch list’ of countries, which subjects countries to extreme pressure from the US government. Pharma’s influence on the EC resulted in pressure from the European Commission on the Thai govt to change its decision.

Recently some Members of US congress wrote to the US administration urging it to put pressure on India to change its national intellectual property law in order to strengthen monopoly protections on pharmaceuticals. The law had previously been challenged in court by one pharmaceutical company but the court turned the claim down. Changing the Indian law by increasing intellectual property protection will deprive patients from access to needed medicines not only in India but also in the rest of the developing countries. India is considered “the pharmacy” of developing countries.

The root of the companies’ monopoly power and influence is the current model for funding for research and development (R&D) of medicines. Pharmaceutical companies justify the high prices of medicines by the need to recover the R&D costs. Yet the actual cost of R&D is kept as a big secret by the industry. In reality it is becoming increasingly clear that medicine pricing is not determined by production costs and a profit margin, but by what the market can bear.

Clearly the current R&D system is failing patients and health providers all over the world. It is high time that global leaders work for an alternative system that separates the financing of R&D from pricing the resulting medicines. It cannot be left to the pharmaceutical industry to cater only to those who can afford to pay high prices- practically deciding who lives and who dies.


[1] Trade Related Aspects on Intellectual Property Rights



Let’s break the vicious circle of inequality in health and access to medicines By Leïla Bodeux Policy Officer, Oxfam-Solidarité

A recent Oxfam report states that by 2016, 1% of the world population will own more wealth than the rest of us combined. This economic injustice is intertwined with gender inequality, and also with inequality in access to education and health. Inequality in access to medicine is a key feature of this global inequality.

Medicine: A hugely profitable business: Medicines, so critical for saving lives and protecting public health, can also deliver eye-watering profits. In 2013 the 10 leading pharmaceutical companies had combined revenue of US $440 billion. The biggest pharmaceutical company in the world, Pfizer, generated US $50 billion of revenue and US $22 billion profit in 2014. Such profits flow from the prices set for some of the newer medicines. In 2014 Gilead Sciences set the US price of its new drug to treat Hepatitis C at US $1000 per pill, or US$ 84,000-110,000 per treatment, a price that generated sales worth US $10 billion in 2014 for this medicine alone. It is worth remembering that approximately 150 million people are infected with hepatitis C, 75% of whom live in Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs), and that about 350,000 of these die each year.

New cancer medicines allow big pharma to charge more than US $100,000 per treatment. These astronomical prices have become unaffordable even in rich countries. The UK has refused to reimburse several cancer medicines due to exorbitant prices. An op-ed co-signed by 100 leading oncologists in the prestigious journal Blood in 2012 called for a reduction of cancer medicine prices, which they deemed economically unsustainable. These unprecedented prices turn life-saving medicines into a highly profitable business.

The collective wealth of billionaires with interests in the pharmaceutical and health sectors increased from US $170bn in 2013 to US $250bn in 2014, a 47% increase and the largest percentage increase in wealth of the different sectors on the Forbes list. The World Bank estimated that the economic costs of the Ebola outbreak to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone was US $356m in lost output in 2014, and that this will increase to US $815m in 2015 if the epidemic cannot be quickly contained. The greatest increase in wealth by a single pharma-related billionaire between 2013 and 2014 could pay the entire US $1.17bn cost for 2014–15 three times over. With such huge amounts of money at stake, the pharma sector does everything in its power to ensure that rules and policies are in place to maintain the status quo.

When company lobbyists hijack the decision-making process: Large sums are spent by the pharmaceutical industry in lobbying health-related decision-makers. In 2013, the pharmaceutical and healthcare sector spent more than US $487 million on lobbying in the US alone, more than was spent by any other sector in the US. The same sector spent US $260 million on campaign contributions during the election cycle of 2012. In Europe, the pharmaceutical industry employs around 220 lobbyists and an army of lobbyists covers Capitol Hill. They aim to maintain monopoly controls that allow high prices for as long as possible.

The pharmaceutical sector also lobbies the governments of the US and the EU to expand companies’ intellectual property (IP) monopoly power through the negotiation of Free Trade Agreements (FTA)[1]. These FTAs seek to restrict governments’ ability to use policy tools that promote access to affordable medicines, which has been condemned by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director Margaret Chan.

Countries are also put under pressure to strengthen their IP rules outside trade negotiations.

This is the case with the US pressure to reform India’s balanced IP law, threatening to shut down the “pharmacy of the developing world”[2]. The “Pharma Gate” scandal in South Africa in 2014 revealed leaked emails showing that Pharmaceutical Associations based in South Africa and the US (PhRMA) hired a powerful US lobby firm to derail South African IP law reform that facilitated access to generic medicines.

Big pharma should focus on what it’s supposed to do: create useful new medicines to support public health at affordable prices: Pharmaceutical companies play a critical role in public health through creating medicines that save and improve the quality of life. But increasingly the industry has lost its way, concentrating on ‘blockbuster’ products, and spending money on marketing and lobbying for ever stronger monopoly rights. The current system, which is supposed to incentivize R&D by granting 20-year patents on innovative medicines, fails to meet the public health need for affordable medicines. R&D is invested where large profits can be made – often products are priced so that only a small proportion of the needs are met – while diseases that affect primarily poor countries are sidelined. Only 10% of the world R&D is spent on diseases that affect 90% of the world population. It is estimated that more than one billion people affected by neglected tropical diseases fail to get the treatment they need.

Three pharmaceutical companies (GSK, Johnson and Johnson, Novartis) made the greatest financial contribution to the Ebola relief effort, donating more than $3 million in cash and medical products. Although laudable, these same three companies together spent more than US $18 million on lobbying activities in the US in 2013. The non-existence of a treatment or vaccine for Ebola resulted from lack of R&D investment and the absence of a financially profitable market. The industry employs great scientists and researchers whose creativity is channeled to products for highly profitable markets instead of services for the vast numbers of people worldwide who are still denied the benefits of new technologies. Their plight should be the number 1 priority of all actors who have a part to play, including the pharmaceutical companies.

Winnie Byanyima, the head of Oxfam International, rightly put it in Davos: “Let the companies stop lobbying, and put the money into medicine!“. The Oxfam Even It Up campaign seeks to consign to the history books the statistic that 1 person out of 3 does not have access to needed medicines.

[1]The following trade negotiations are currently undergoing: EU-Thailand FTA, EU-India FTA, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

[2]India’s balanced IP law allowed its generic industry to lower the price of Antiretroviral treatments by 99 % since 2000, bringing the cost of treatment to below $100 per person per year



Inequality and access to health care in Russia By : Daria Ukhova, inequality policy advisor, Oxfam GB; Oleg Kucheryavenko, Coordinator for Health Policy and Advocacy, Global Call to Action against Poverty

During 2014, we both had a chance to work on an exciting project of analysing inequality trends in Russia as part of Oxfam’s programme on Empowering Civil Societies in an Unequal Multipolar World (ECSM BRICSAM). Through the project, we’ve got to work on the issues of both economic inequality and inequality in access to healthcare in Russia, which are central to Oxfam’s inequality campaign. This blog reflects some of our findings and learning from the project.

According to the 2013 representative population survey, Russians think that the two forms of inequality most strongly affecting the well-being of the country’s population are:

• Income inequality (72 per cent of respondents)

• Inequality in access to healthcare (47 per cent)

The income inequality percentage may not surprise outside observers, as Russia has witnessed one of the most radical increases in economic inequality in the last two decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and is now on par with other high inequality G20 peers like Turkey and Mexico. Inequality in access to healthcare may come as a bit more of a surprise, taking into account that Russia formally has universal health coverage and the right to free healthcare is enshrined in its constitution. Moreover, BRICS are now being looked at as important players in the global health arena.

So, what does inequality in access to healthcare actually look like in Russia? What are the main causes of inequality in access to healthcare? And how does economic inequality, ravaging the country is related to the inequality in access to healthcare?

Inequality in access to healthcare Russia has three key dimensions:

Key drivers of inequality in access to healthcare:

  • Under-financing. Currently, the share of healthcare budget in the total government budget stands at 9.4% (significantly lower than 15% recommended in Abuja declaration). Moreover, the share of healthcare budget has been gradually reducing in the recent years. According to the Ministry of Finance, government spending will be cut by 22.9% in next three years. The document also suggests that private expenditure may rise from the current value of 40% of total expenditure on health.
  • Ineffective healthcare financing model. Compulsory health insurance model introduced in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the parallel collapse of the Soviet Semashko model of healthcare financing has proved to be ineffective in the accumulation and allocation of public funding. Private health insurance companies through which insurance is being implemented have financial interest as their primary goal– they raise money from penalties imposed on healthcare providers. Moreover, the financial principles of: ‘money follows the patient’ and ‘money per treated patient’ adopted by the Ministry of Health in 2007 lead healthcare providers to have economic interest to manage patients. For example, GPs do not send patients to other providers even if necessary because in this case money will follow the patient .This means that some GPs who are un-trained as ophthalmologist may treat cataract with eye drops when the patient needs surgery. Providers are also interested in big numbers of ‘treated patients’, who preferably have chronic conditions leading to long-term treatment. Therefore, the public interest clashed with the one of healthcare providers.”.
  • Understaffing. While Russia is often cited as one of the global leaders in terms of the number of medical staff (43-44 doctors per 10,000 citizens), these numbers are based on the number of medical university graduates rather than reflecting the reality. For example around 8% of medical staff quit the profession annually (22-25,000 medical staff) and 40% of doctors are at, or nearly at, pension age, but continue working despite lack of training opportunities to upgrade the old knowledge. Moreover, understaffing in some regions reaches the level of 73% (e.g. Arkhangelsk). Medical staff continue quitting the profession, as the salaries of medical staff remain unacceptably low. In some regions staff salary only slightly exceeds a living wage.
  • Lack of access to affordable medicines. Overall, only certain categories of population such as disabled people, patients with certain diseases including TB, HIV, cancer and military veterans are entitled to get medicines for free in Russia. But even for these groups access to free medicines is severely limited. Currently, only 3.3 euro per patient per month is allocated for treatment of cancer patients. Availability of funding for medicines is also very uneven across different regions. In some regions the funding gap between actual and required financing is 90%. In our study, about 60% of Russian oncologists have to refuse writing a free prescription due to insufficient funding. Consequently, patients were either deprived of treatment or had to buy medicines themselves. Out of 300,000 patients in need of HIV medication, only half is estimated to have real access to the medicines. Over half of the private expenditure on healthcare is for retail purchasing of medicines and other healthcare products.

Clearly the lack of publicly funded health service makes people’ income the decisive factor in a person’s chances of getting healthcare in Russia. Private expenditure on healthcare of the richest 10 per cent of the Russian population is now eleven times greater than that of the poorest 10 per cent. The combination of lack of investment in health service and rising economic inequality will continue to exacerbate inequality in access to healthcare, which, in turn, will lead to further perpetuation of income inequality at the country enters into this vicious circle.



Public health challenges for the BRICS may impede growth By Oleg Kucheryavenko, Coordinator for Health Policy and Advocacy, Global Call to Action against Poverty and Chairperson, Working Group on Access to Health in BRICSAM Countries in ECSN Program

This is the first of two posts  on access to health service in BRICS countries

Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs turned the spotlight on the four emerging economies when he dubbed them the“BRIC” countries in 2001. The acronym was extended later — to BRICS — to include South Africa.  Although such a grouping may be useful from economic point of view, it sounds awkward and artificial when it comes to global health policy.

While health economists see strong potential roles for the BRICS in the development of universal health coverage, these countries vary greatly in terms of their patterns of disease, healthcare systems, financial interest in the pharmaceutical trade, and engagement in the global arena for healthcare. Although many might be looking to the BRICS for leadership, it is still not clear if these countries have sufficient shared interests or the coordinating mechanisms and processes needed to collectively and cohesively influence or promote global health policy.

The BRICS are also nowhere near economic parity. Russia and Brazil are far ahead in per capita income, outdistancing both India and China by significant margins – nearly $14,000 compared with China’s $6,629 and India’s $1,592; data and figures which were released in 2013 by the IMF. Notwithstanding, the countries in question have for the most part fallen short of successfully addressing inequalities in healthcare. Inequality in the BRICS has come under scrutiny of late, particularly due to their falling behind on Millennium Development Goals.

Despite diversity, the BRICS countries face a number of similar public health challenges, including inequitable access to healthcare and affordable medicines, soaring health costs, rising non communicable and infectious diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis.

These factors were illustrated by recent findings of a study conducted by Oleg Kucheryavenko, which noted that limited access to healthcare for a significant number of people in Russia is an issue of concern to all social groups, non-governmental organizations and political parties. Inequality has not been given much attention by policy makers.

The Russian healthcare system is characterized by significant differences in demand from the various socioeconomic classes. Social groups with a higher incomes request healthcare more frequently than those with lower incomes. This inequality is reflected by a widespread health service based on cash payments: high-income persons pay 2.5 times more for a visit to a healthcare institution than those with a low income. However, poor people spend 1.5 times more of their household budget on medical care than well-off people.

Since 1990, the material and human resources of the health sector have been reduced. Beds have decreased by 12%, the number of doctors has dropped by 46%, and nursing staff by 10%. Yet, Russia is still among the top countries of the world in terms of the number of doctors and hospital beds per 1000 persons.

While global growth in expenditures for health care is rising, Russian spending continues to decline, which hinders government’ ability to subsidize the most in need. Russian state healthcare expenditures are several-fold lower than the ones in the countries of the European Union; in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland – 6% of GDP, in Germany – 11%.

Russian spending on the health and social sector has slipped as EU and US economic sanctions have taken hold. Cutting public expenditures meant less spending for social services. Moreover, the Russian parliament approved a fragile budget that includes a reduction in healthcare spending by 25% in 2015. These decisions have put the country’s relative position of strength among the BRICS in serious jeopardy.

Between 1995 and 2011, private spending by Russians on health surpassed state spending by 2.1 times. Over half of this private spending is for retail purchases of medicines and healthcare products. Expenditures for paid health care services and unofficial payments amount in total to 87.9% of personal expenditures.

Given the current trends in healthcare financing and the structure of informal payments for health care services, expenditures for prescription drugs are likely to increase. Our study, estimated that the private expenditures will rise from 331.9 billion RUB in 2013 to 1305.5 billion RUB in 2020, considerably outperforming state expenditures on health.

Increasing funding alone will not solve all the problems in the health care system. Current spending is both insufficient and ineffective. Without effective policy changes, additional funding is likely to have a negligible effect. A key change is to adopt a social policy based on recognizing health as a human right and not a commercial product. Adopting universal health coverage as a basis for health policy means that quality health services are publicly financed and publicly delivered to all who need it.

It is evident that the prospects for health care in Russia are directly interwoven with the nation’s future socioeconomic development. What happens in the future depends on the extent to which the government recognizes the inequality that is skyrocketing in society.


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Global Health Check was created by Anna Marriott and is currently edited by Mohga Kamal-Yanni