At a high-level meeting in Tokyo a couple of weeks ago World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim was unequivocal – “achieving universal health coverage and equity in health are central to reaching the [World Bank] global goals to end extreme poverty by 2030 and boost shared prosperity.”
Kim’s emphasis on equity and the need to prioritize policies that actively redistribute resources and reduce disparities in health coverage marks a crucial and welcome turning point for the World Bank. As Oxfam argued in a recent paper, UHC reforms must be explicit about reducing inequality in access to health services, so that everyone has the same financial protection and access to the same range of high quality health services – according to need and not their ability to pay. Equity must be designed into the system from the beginning with governments and donors ensuring that the poor benefit at least as much as the better off at every step of the way towards universal coverage.
But by far the most significant outcome of the conference was the release of a joint World Bank and World Health Organization proposed framework for monitoring progress towards UHC. The framework sets out clear commitments to reduce out-of-pocket payments and improve access to health care for the poor with two new targets:
These clear targets and deadlines give something progressive to hold the World Bank Group accountable to but why set an 80% rather than 100% target? And if the Bank is serious about them the targets they should be monitored annually and included in the Bank’s new corporate scorecard currently under negotiation. And most importantly, what action will the Bank take to deliver against them?
User fees are the most inequitable method of financing health care services, yet they continue to exist in most poor countries. Three people every second are pushed into poverty because of them but donor support for fee removal has remained unacceptably low. The World Bank should break from history and play a clear pro-active role in helping governments to remove fees and to raise and distribute revenue for health equitably across populations.
At the same time the Bank needs to be much clearer that user fees should not be replaced by health insurance schemes that have been proven to prioritize already advantaged ‘easy to reach’ groups in the formal sector or rely on collecting premiums from people who are too poor to pay. As Oxfam’s recent paper showed, the countries making most progress towards UHC have prioritized spending on health from general taxation – either on its own or pooled with formal sector payroll taxes and international aid. Governments and donors, including the World Bank, should use the recent lessons from these countries and build on them.
At the Tokyo event we once again heard calls from Jim Kim for investment in ‘affordable’ ‘quality’ ‘health coverage’ for all, with an emphasis on ‘primary health care’. This is positive but we need greater reassurance that the Bank has shifted to a genuine focus on comprehensive primary health care for all as part of its UHC agenda. This would stand in stark contrast to its historic emphasis on ‘basic’, ‘selective’ or ‘minimum’ interventions or packages of care.
We hope world leaders listen to the clear call from the World Bank and WHO for UHC to be included in the post-2015 development framework. Universal health coverage provides the opportunity to accelerate progress on the health-related Millennium Development Goals, address the growing burden of non-communicable diseases, and most critically to move towards a more comprehensive approach to deliver on the right to equitable and affordable health care for all. This is something all world leaders should embrace as negotiations on the post-2015 development framework commence.
Ceri Averill is a Health Policy Advisor for Oxfam GB and author of Universal Health Coverage: Why Health Insurance Schemes are Leaving the Poor Behind
As the Government of Ghana gears up its plans to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its now internationally famed National Health Insurance Scheme, Ghana’s Universal Access to Healthcare Campaign today launch our own assessment of progress to date. Our new paper explains how 65% of the population is still paying out-of-pocket in the old ‘cash and carry’ system and that at the current rate of progress UHC will not be achieved until at least the year 2076. Our campaign argues that progress will continue to stall as long as the NHIS structure excludes the very people it seeks to protect through overly-burdensome and unworkable insurance premiums.
Next week Ghana’s National Health Insurance Authority (NHIA) will host a three day International conference in Accra with the theme: “Towards Universal Health Coverage: Increasing Enrolment whilst Ensuring Sustainability”. The conference will attract Universal Health Coverage (UHC) practitioners, academia, policy makers, NGOs and CSOs in their numbers, and seeks to examine the successes and challenges of the NHIS, and elicit feedback and proposals for reform.
While the Universal Access to Healthcare Campaign (UAHCC ) welcomes the anniversary event, we are concerned that inherent pitfalls of the NHIS have been consistently left on the sideline over the past decade and if unadressed will stifle any prospect the NHIS has of achieving UHC in the near future. The UAHCC will convey this position at the anniversary conference, where we have been invited to participate in a panel discussion, but also in our own civil society forum today to which government officials and donor agency staff have been invited.
The paper launched today acknowledges some strengths of the scheme including its generous benefits package, comprehensive level of care and treatment coverage and relatively broad range of exemption categories. However, these strengths are only relevant to NHIS active members. The UAHCC calls on the Government of Ghana to act on the glaring short falls of the scheme including:
Sidua Hor is coordinator for the Ghana Universal Access to Healthcare Campaign Coalition
Giorgi’s shy innocent face stares out of a billboard in Tbilisi. The words ‘I have a right to live’ are printed across the frame. A famous Georgian journalist tenderly holds Giorgi’s hand, urging the country to hear their urgent call to action. 13-year-old Giorgi has just a few critical months to find a bone marrow donor to save his life.
Giorgi is part of a campaign run by leading Georgian journalists, and supported by Oxfam, to ask the Government to urgently invest in the healthcare sector, and save the lives of children affected by leukaemia. For Giorgi, the journalists’ crusade is his last hope. Giorgi’s mother, Jakhia, explains,
“We have no money. We only receive 125 lari (£48) per month from the state, which is barely enough to feed my family. We have nothing to sell, and I don’t know how we’ll cope,” she says wiping away tears.
Although the Georgian government provides chemotherapy and medicines to children affected by leukaemia, there are currently no facilities in the country to facilitate bone marrow transplants and no database to find donor matches. Giorgi’s mother may be forced to seek refugee status abroad to pay for her son’s transplant which costs around 100, 000 euros (£85, 000)– an insurmountable amount for the majority of Georgia’s population.
Giorgi’s story is representative of hundreds of people across Georgia who are struggling to access affordable health care. The health system in Georgia requires families to take drastic measures to save their children’s lives.
In Gori, the former home of Stalin, Maya, a young single working mother largely dependent on social benefits, is unable to afford the cost of her post cancer treatment. Rising food prices are also having an impact on her family and pushing health care even further out of reach. Maya looks sadly out of the window of her small dilapidated ex Soviet apartment, which she shares with fourteen other families “Sometimes I go to bed hungry at night so I can pay for medicine for my daughter.”
Elsewhere, people like Elguja, who used to be an actor, have no choice but to buy low quality cheap medicines. Elguja who turned blind at 22, says, “My pension is 125 lari (£48) each month but medicine costs 100 lari (£38). I have to buy cheap medicines but it makes my asthma worse. You can’t imagine what it’s like when you can’t breathe, especially at night.” Elguja often has pain in his eyes but cannot afford the high costs of eye medication. “I miss being able to see people’s eyes on stage,” Elguja wistfully remembers, “The eyes are the window to the soul,” he waves his walking stick like a wand as if he is playing the part of a blind man in a play.
For Giorgi, Maya, and Elguja, the new Government’s pledge for universal free healthcare for Georgia’s population, and the promise to establish a transplant centre for children affected with leukaemia offers hope. Oxfam is working to raise awareness amongst young people about their health rights and have a say in the future health care system. For young Madea, who is taking part in the project, it gives her a chance to have a voice, “Healthcare is the most important thing, especially for children as they are the future of the country. We often have meetings with municipality representatives to have a say in the healthcare system and lobby for changes.”
Meanwhile, Giorgi’s message ‘I have a right to live’ remains on billboards across the capital, a stark reminder of the urgent need for healthcare reform in Georgia. I hope that Oxfam’s campaign gives Giorgi, Maya and Elguja a second chance.
Caroline Berger is the Oxfam Regional Digital Media Coordinator for the CIS
“We must be the generation that delivers universal health coverage.” – WBG President Jim Yong Kim in a speech to the World Health Assembly, May 2013
As the World Bank Group’s Annual Meetings come to Washington this weekend, there is much talk of President Jim Yong Kim’s new strategy to achieve the institution’s updated vision: to end extreme poverty by 2030 and promote “shared prosperity,” Bank-speak for reducing inequality.
We would argue that pursuing Universal Health Coverage (UHC) – alongside robust investments in other aspects of human development – must be utterly central to the Bank’s strategy to achieve its two goals. While Dr. Kim’s Annual Meetings opener speech last week touched on the importance of health (and education) in achieving its goals, human development is not articulated as a central component of the Bank’s new strategy to achieve the goals, which its Board will be approving on Saturday.
The Bank says this is because the strategy is meant to describe an overall approach rather than privileging any particular sector. That may be, but it is hard to see how the Bank’s two goals can be met without a clear vision for how the fruits of economic growth can be equitably shared through transformative essential public services. We hope to see this change as the implementation details of the strategy become clearer.
Nevertheless, President Kim’s recent speeches and writing provide clues to his vision of the importance of health in reducing poverty and inequality. In a recent article he wrote that “to free the world from extreme poverty by 2030, countries must ensure that all their citizens have access to quality, affordable health services.” At the World Health Assembly in May, he pointed to a hopeful new direction for the Bank by committing to help countries work towards UHC and stating that point-of-service fees are “both unjust and unnecessary.” But will these high level statements really translate to a change in the way the Bank works in countries?
We hope so. The Bank’s expertise in building health systems can be powerfully harnessed for the cause of UHC, but this means a break from business as usual. Building health systems isn’t enough; they must be the right kinds of systems — systems that are equitable and truly universal.
Oxfam’s new paper, “Universal Health Coverage: Why health insurance schemes are leaving the poor behind,” examines the conditions necessary for health systems to be equitable and universal. The paper looks at four key ingredients to successful financing for UHC: removal of direct payments and other financial barriers, compulsory pre-payment, large risk pools, and financing from general revenues to cover the uncovered. In our analysis, conventional insurance schemes – whether private, community-based or European-style social health insurance – come up short when measured against these criteria.
Since UHC is about access to quality care for everyone regardless of ability to pay, governments must move away from relying on employment-based and contributory insurance models. Instead, health care must become a right of citizenship (or residency), financed in large part through general government revenues. As the diverse but successful UHC experiences of Mexico, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Brazil and Kyrgyzstan show, equity must be designed into the system from the beginning, rather than starting with the easiest to reach in the formal sector.
The World Bank Group has a history of promoting health insurance as a financing mechanism to generate revenues in the health sector in environments of fiscal constraints. Some examples include a recent policy series on private health insurance, previous work in countries such as Ghana, and IFC investments to support insurance schemes in Africa.
But things may be changing at the Bank. In a series of 22 recently released case studies on UHC, the Bank finds that, across countries, the use of financing from general taxation to expand coverage is an important commonality, and that prioritizing equity is a key lesson. We also hear the Bank is playing a more constructive role in certain countries to encourage universal system design. And new leadership in the health sector and from the President should be cause for optimism.
A real test of the potency of the new World Bank strategy will be whether the World Bank Group throws its full weight behind equitable, universal health systems – systems that are financed largely through tax-based general revenues and which include all members of society – through its global knowledge products, its policy advice and technical assistance, and through its lending choices.
In a new report published today, Oxfam is warning that health insurance schemes introduced in the name of universal health coverage (UHC) are excluding the majority of people and leaving the poor behind.
While the new growing momentum for UHC is welcome there is a concern that the mistakes of history could be repeated. The optimism in 1978 following the Alma Ata ‘Health for All’ declaration was quickly replaced by disillusionment as influential donors failed to act on the shared vision of comprehensive universal primary health care. They financed low cost selective interventions instead. Today, a similar danger exists as we witness a wide range of ‘business as usual’ interventions being rebranded as ‘UHC’ despite them bearing little resemblance to the World Health Organisation’s UHC principles.
This is certainly the case for health financing. Our new report takes a critical look at the almost exclusive focus of some donors and low and middle income countries on contributory insurance schemes as the way to achieve UHC. Such schemes fail to provide coverage for the majority of citizens and serve to divert attention away from needed reforms to national and international tax systems that could raise significant additional revenues for health.
Voluntary insurance – private and community-based – has never worked to achieve UHC yet is still being widely promoted. India’s voluntary RSBY insurance scheme for people below the poverty line is widely praised as a success but offers limited financial protection and has skewed public resources to curative rather than preventative care.
For those who recognise the pitfalls of voluntary schemes, social health insurance (SHI) has emerged as the model of choice. SHI has worked to achieve UHC in a number of high-income countries, but attempts to replicate in poorer countries have proved unsuccessful. In practice SHI schemes usually start with the small number of easy-to-reach formally employed and then struggle to scale up beyond. Premiums are too expensive for most and schemes become de facto voluntary, leading to large scale exclusion. Ten year old national insurance schemes in Tanzania and Ghana cover only 17% and 36% of citizens respectively. Kenya’s National Hospital Insurance Fund – established nearly 50 years ago – today insures just 18 per cent of Kenyans.
Hopes that insurance contributions from those outside of formal employment would raise significant additional revenue have also not been realised. In Ghana, premiums paid by the informal sector contribute just five per cent towards the cost of the national scheme. Governments also face huge bills to cover the SHI contributions of their workers. The Government of Tanzania spent $33m on employer contributions in 2009/10; this equated to $83 per employee – six times more than it spent per person, per year on health for the general population.
Instead of importing inappropriate health financing models from high-income countries, our paper recommends that developing country governments look to learn from the increasing number of home-grown UHC success stories in other, more comparable countries.
The countries making most progress towards UHC agree that entitlement to health care should be based on citizenship and/or residency (not employment status or financial contribution) and while specific journeys differ, these countries fall into two broad camps. First there are examples of countries at all income levels, including Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Brazil, which use tax revenues to fund UHC. A second option increasingly being adopted by another set of successful UHC countries, including Thailand, Mexico, and Kyrgyzstan, is to collect insurance premiums only from those in formal salaried employment, and to pool these where possible with tax revenues to finance health coverage for the entire population. According to WHO, only eight of 49 low-income countries will be in a position to fully finance UHC from domestic resources in 2015 so international aid will continue to play a crucial role.
The focus on health insurance seems to have served as a distraction for the international health community from the key ingredient for all UHC success stories – public financing. Rather than focus efforts on collecting contributions from people who are too poor to pay, governments and donors should look to reform national and international tax systems in order to generate significant and urgently needed revenue for health. Oxfam estimates that strengthening tax administration alone could raise an additional 31 per cent of tax revenue across 52 developing countries, amounting to $269bn in increased domestic resources. Enough to double health budgets in these countries.
The growing momentum for UHC is welcome, exciting, and challenging. However, if we are to heed World Bank President Jim Kim’s warning that UHC could easily become a ‘toothless slogan’, then UHC advocates must stand true to the WHO UHC principles to reduce out of pocket payments, introduce mandatory pre-payment, create large risk pools and scale up public financing to cover those who cannot afford to contribute. To these we add that entitlement to health coverage should be based on citizenship and/or residence, and that progress can only be considered progress if women and men living in poverty benefit at least as much as the better off at every step of the way towards UHC.
Oxfam’s report ‘Universal health coverage: why health insurance schemes are leaving the poor behind’ is available to download from www.oxfam.org/uhc
Anna Marriott is a Health Policy Advisor for Oxfam and editor of Global Health Check