As world leaders prepare to gather for the 66th World Health Assembly on May 20, social movements are questioning the market-friendly version of universal health coverage (UHC) it is promoting.
One organization, Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (JSA), is denouncing India’s emulation of this UHC strategy, as contained in the country’s 12th Five Year Plan, which uncritically endorses the private medical sector and focuses on health insurance schemes. In a recent paper – JSA proposes an alternative UHC model.
Public financing for whom?
In the past five years there has been an impressive roll out of government-funded insurance schemes in India that are supposed to improve the country’s public health system. In theory, treatment covered under these schemes can be provided by any accredited facility. But in practice the majority of providers are found in the largely unregulated private sector which already accounts for 80% of outpatient and 60% of in-patient care according to the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), making India one of the most privatized systems in the world. India’s healthcare system is increasingly dominated by big hospitals chains (e.g. Apollo Hospitals) with an infamous track record of expensive services and unethical practices. As it is, health insurance schemes mostly channel public monies for private profit. For example, from 2007 to 2013 the state of Andhra Pradesh allocated a total Rs.47.23 billion to facilities accredited under the Arogyasri scheme, of which Rs.36.52 billion went to private facilities.
Getting it right
Health is a right, and priorities should be based on citizens’ needs. What the majority of Indians lack is comprehensive primary care, but current health insurance “packages” only insure beneficiaries for ailments that require hospitalization. They cover a very small portion of the burden of disease, excluding out-patient treatments for tuberculosis, diabetes, hypertension, heart conditions, and cancer among others. Evidence from the first such scheme in India – Arogyasri – suggests that it consumed 25% of the state’s health budget but addressed only 2% of the burden of disease.
Who inverted the pyramid?
This situation ends up distorting the very structure of the health system by starving primary care facilities to the benefit of more profitable secondary and tertiary care. In 2009-2010, direct national government expenditure on tertiary care was slightly over 20% of total health expenditure, but if one adds spending on the insurance schemes the total would be closer to 37%. In Andhra Pradesh, following the implementation of Arogyasri, the proportion of funds allocated for primary care fell by 14%.
A good health system is like a pyramid: the largest numbers should be treated at the primary level where people live and work. We need to flip the inverted pyramid that has been created and offer a new roadmap predicated on public funding and provisioning of a public system that reprioritizes primary health care, and is comprehensive, integrated and accessible to all.
The health insurance schemes in place fail to address another key issue: access to medicines. Paradoxically, India is the largest producer of drugs in the developing world and at the same time the country where the WHO estimates the greatest number can’t afford the medicines they need. Since the Patent Act was amended in 2005, domestic pharmaceutical companies can’t produce cheaper versions of new drugs, which are now sold by multinationals at prices well beyond the reach of most patients. Poor regulations also means more than 50% of the average family spending on medicines is on irrational or unnecessary drugs and diagnostic tests according to the NSSO. Clearly, the pharmaceutical sector must be reigned in, and all essential drugs should be made available, free of cost, at all public facilities.
Addressing public health gaps
The task of achieving health for all in India will not be easy. Current public health services are marked by poor access, low quality and limited choice. Besides rampant corruption, poor management results in mismatches between demand and supply of services: facilities aren’t distributed optimally; equipment and funds fall short of requirements and don’t flow efficiently. Labour shortages can be partly explained by disinvestment in medical education and flawed deployment mechanisms. Although programs such as the National Rural Health Mission have made some inroads to improve services, much remains to be done. The problem is largely one of unresponsiveness to citizens coupled with unreliable technical estimates of costs and disease burden, leading to ill-informed prioritization.
It is necessary to recast the UHC debate and propose alternatives to strengthen the public health systemto address these problems and to build integrated, comprehensive services with strong mechanisms of accountability. Key to these changes are the following:
Over the short term, we also need to explore alternate ways of harnessing private resources for public health goals. Given the sheer size of the private sector, it is not possible to entirely ignore it while planning for equitable access to public services. It’s not a monolithic entity either; some segments such as charitable, faith-based and other not-for-profit healthcare facilities that work in less developed parts of the country can fill certain critical gaps in the public system. Under clear terms and conditions, other private providers such as general practitioners or small and medium-sized hospitals could be in-sourced to complement available public health services. Importantly, there should be no transfer of assets and resources into private hands and kickback statutes should be put in place to ensure there are no referrals with conflict of interests.
All the possible mechanisms for harnessing the private sector should be seen as supplementary (and often interim) measures, and not as a substitute for very significant scaling up and strengthening of the public system both in terms of quality and accessibility.
There is a need to reclaim public systems, to strengthen and expand them. Moving toward health for all requires major transformations in health care, but also in a wide range of social determinants of health – food security and nutrition, water supply, sanitation, working conditions, housing, environment, education and more. We need to build broad-based alliances for social change to redefine the relationship between people and their public systems.
Amit Sengupta is a Research Associate with the Municipal Services Project and Associate Global Co-ordinator with the People’s Health Movement, a global network of 18 national chapters that includes India’s Jan Swasthya Abhiyanfor which he acts as National Co-convenor.
Madeleine Bélanger Dumontier is Communications Manager for the Municipal Services Project, a global research initiative that explores alternatives to the privatization and commercialization of service provision in the electricity, health, water and sanitation sectors.
Photo: Rajeev Chaudhury