A recent dengue outbreak in Delhi has once again revealed the shortcomings of the massively underfunded Indian public health system, alongside the unacceptable and illegal exclusion of poor patients by the city’s private hospitals. This blog steals the excellent analysis by my colleague Oommen Kurian from Oxfam India, recently published in the British Medical Journal, as well as the post-dengue prognosis of well known commentators, Reddy and Murphy.
Oommen Kurian’s BMJ blog outlined how the current dengue outbreak in Delhi came to international prominence following the unfortunate incident of a young couple who committed suicide after their son was rejected treatment by many prominent private sector hospitals in Delhi. Treatment was denied despite the government saying on 28 August that patients should not be denied admission to hospital on account of a lack of beds. Responding to such cases, the Government of Delhi has issued show-cause notices to five private hospitals asking them to explain why they refused to admit the boy and why their registration should not be cancelled.
Kurian’s blog focussed primarily on two major problems: the shamefully inaccurate ‘official’ data on incidence and deaths from dengue fever, and inappropriate profiteering by Delhi’s private health sector during the Dengue outbreak. Reddy and Murthy, two prominent commentators, also argue in their post-dengue prognosis that once the media hype and finger pointing of the current dengue fever crisis passes, citizens of India are left with the same long-term problem of a chronically underfunded public health system that causes unreported tragedy on a daily basis.
Kurian’s quick comparison of different sources of data on deaths from dengue fever show that only 29 of the 1221 deaths from dengue registered in Delhi between 2010 and 2014 entered the official system (see graph below). Official estimates of the annual incidence of dengue fever nationwide are a staggering 282 times lower than the actual number.
Dengue fever affects most of the metropolitan cities and towns in India, where the healthcare delivery systems are better than the rural areas. However, the preparedness of the system against it may be impacted by the level of massive under-reporting of cases and deaths.
Profiteering or serving?
Delhi has a large number of private hospitals, which have received free land and other subsidies from the government to provide a set percentage of their services free to poor patients. Over time, these charitable hospitals have become purely commercial entities, dishonouring the commitments made to the government.
A high level committee assigned by the Government of Delhi, headed by Justice AS Qureshi, took a bleak view of the nature of such hospitals which claim to be charitable just to lap up subsidies and have become “selfish, greedy, and exploitative” moneymaking machines. Data from 2014 show that the average total medical expenditure for treatment per case of hospitalisation is higher in Delhi than any other state in India, at Rs 34,658. The India average is Rs 18,268.
Profiteering in times of distress is nothing new to Delhi’s private health sector: even those which claim to be private “charitable” hospitals are notorious. For these very reasons, midway through the dengue outbreak, the Union Health Ministry decided to ask the Delhi government to take action against any overcharging by the private hospitals. On 16 September, Delhi’s Directorate of Health Services issued an order against private hospitals and laboratories overcharging, and implemented ceiling prices for dengue testing. Another advisory on the same day allowed the private hospitals and nursing homes to increase their bed strength by up to 20 per cent on a temporary basis for two months.
As of 21 September this year, the press has reported that while the death toll has “risen” to 22 this season, the deputy chief minister announced that the health situation is now better and the government is winning the battle against dengue. Activists do not take these numbers seriously. Advocate Ashok Agarwal, a member of a Delhi high court-appointed panel to oversee the implementation of the EWS scheme (beds reserved for patients from “economically weaker sections”) in private hospitals announced on social media that the Delhi Government’s dengue death figures are incorrect and that 23 dengue deaths have happened in one hospital alone. The director of another hospital in Delhi is on record saying that at least seven dengue deaths had taken place in his hospital alone, as of 17 September.
A look at civil registration data reveals that dengue strikes Delhi at regular intervals. With more money already put into health, the current Delhi government—only in its first year of rule—may be better placed to fight any dengue outbreak in the future. However, any effort towards containing contagion should begin with having correct numbers—of cases and deaths—and a long term plan to align the private sector in the state with the broader public health goals of society.
Once the current media hype has passed….
In their post-dengue prognosis Reddy and Murphy write that there is ‘justified outrage at the tragic deaths of children from dengue under deplorable conditions of apathy and neglect in the capital of India. But say the underlying causes of the crisis, namely chronic and long-term underfunding, poor co-ordination and planning, remain unaddressed and the daily tragedies facing citizens in the rest of the country, especially in rural areas, go unreported. They give the heartrending example of a tribal in Odisha who allegedly felt forced to sell his two-month-old son for Rs 700 to buy medicines for his sick wife. Reddy and Murphy conclude that:
Public health systems cannot function as a motley crowd of disconnected actors ad libbing their way through an unscripted play in chaotic fashion. The different actors involved require a script, coordination, direction, and need to work as a team. It is time India got its act together to create strong, well-resourced, responsive and responsible health systems. Or else, terrible things will continue to happen to innocent children, expectant mothers, poor tribals, disabled persons — and to your family and ours. We will all be responsible when such terrible wrongs happen.
Oommen C. Kurian is research coordinator, Oxfam India.
K Srinath Reddy is president and N R Narayana Murthy is chairman of Public Health Foundation of India
Early September, the East Mediterranean Regional Office of the WHO (EMRO) held a regional meeting on Expanding Universal Health Coverage to the informal sector, poor and vulnerable groups in September in Cairo. The meeting was one in a series of the EMRO strategy to support countries in implementing universal health coverage (UHC).
The aim of the meeting was to help countries devise national roadmaps to expand health coverage to the populations that face hardship in accessing healthcare. This aim was to be achieved via sharing global, regional and country experiences in advancing UHC, exploring political processes and structural and cultural factors involved and promoting a better understanding of UHC monitoring. This blog covers a number of key issues that were debated during the meeting.
The informal sector, poor and vulnerable groups
There was a debate about definition and identification of these populations. The region has groups such as migrant workers in the Gulf States, who may not fit with the ILO definition of the informal sector. The region also hosts millions of refugees, some of which maintained that status for decades e.g. Palestinians in Gaza, while millions of Syrian refugees are now living in Lebanon and Jordan.
Vulnerable groups are sometimes “unseen” and therefore their needs are not addressed. These include disabled people, especially those with intellectual disabilities, female and children headed households and street children. In general the informal sector population makes up the majority in most countries and therefore their health coverage has to be at the heart of any plans for UHC.
Country capacity to identify these populations is weak and the politics of targeting is complex and may have political cost. The real question is about the cost-effectiveness of governments’ focusing on identifying and registering populations in order to target services versus national funding of a basic benefit package that is available for everybody where all sectors of society can benefit.
Health financing in the region
The region is classified into three groups: group 1 comprises high-income countries e.g the Gulf States, group 2 are middle-income countries including Egypt, Iraq and Morocco. The third group of low-income countries includes Afghanistan, Somalia and Djibouti.
The percentage of government spending on health to total government expenditure in EMRO’ low and middle-income countries (LMICs) is low: on average 8% compared to the global average 11%. Out-of-pocket (OOP) spending is very high in the region even in countries that have health insurance schemes, leading to poverty and financial hardship. For example despite high insurance coverage in Iran, OOP represents 52.1% of the total health expenditure.
There is a recent interest in implementing or expanding existing social health insurance (SHI). Yet countries which have made progress towards UHC have relied on government funding. For example, Turkey introduced a Green Card to cover the informal sector, 70% of its costs is covered by the government. This was accompanied with increased public expenditure on health. Turkey is merging the SHI and green card financing in order to provide a comprehensive package. The result is decreasing OOP to 17%.
Most social insurance schemes work separately and cross subsidisation is rare. Multiple schemes build inequality via different premiums and benefit packages and it is difficult to harmonise the schemes.
A number of countries and especially high-income countries choose a model of health insurance and are trying to extend premium payment and coverage to migrant workers. Private insurance is increasing in some countries such as Jordan where 25 companies provide private insurance. However there is no data on the effectiveness, efficiency and equity of the schemes.
Low-income countries are struggling to provide UHC. As aid- dependent countries there are questions about the responsibility of donors for long-term predictable financing to build strong public health sectors in these countries.
The evidence and discussions during the meeting clearly illustrated the fundamental role of government financing of health care to extend UHC to the informal sector, poor and vulnerable groups.
Delivery of healthcare
Reliance on the private sector to deliver healthcare is widely spread in the region. The range within the private sector varies from unqualified, unregulated provider to five-star hospitals – also often unregulated.
While there was near consensus at the meeting on the necessity of public financing to cover poor people, the informal sector and vulnerable groups, there was no consensus on modes of delivering the service. The role of the private sector was mentioned as “important” without defining that role. Yet evidence from successful countries such as Thailand and Sri Lanka show the importance of a strong public sector in providing UHC and the limited role of the private sector in achieving that goal.
Some commentators also suggested that separating purchasing from provision was an important part of extending coverage. However, there was a warning of the lack of evidence that such a split is more effective or more efficient in delivering health care than the direct financing and delivery within the public sector, and that indeed, often the reverse is true.
Questions were raised about governments’ capacity to manage contracts with and to regulate the private sector. Even high-income countries such as Australia face huge questions around whether the public are getting a good deal from the private sector. The South Africa experience shows the difficulties in regulating the escalating cost of the private sector. 80% of South Africans rely on the public sector. The private sector services 20% of South Africans yet consumes 60% of the total health spending.
There was general agreement during the close of the conference that country experiences point to a number of essential ingredients for expanding UHC to cover the informal sector, poor and vulnerable groups including:
 Country presentation at EMRO meeting in Cairo
Country presentation at the EMRO meeting in Cairo
India’s health care delivery system portrays many contradictions. Enthusiastic policy discourse on Universal Health Coverage (UHC) and user charges co-exist. Grand plans for international health tourism focusing on super-specialty hospitals in the cities are made, while health payments push 60 million Indians below the poverty line every year. The overall public expenditure on health is at just over 1% of GDP but more budget cuts and insurance-based financing are being proposed. Oxfam India’s new Working Paper, “Financing Healthcare for All in India: Towards a Common Goal” highlights some of these contradictions and explores the challenges facing India’s health sector.
Sengupta (2013) observes that one reason for the unified support of UHC among international agencies was the global rise in catastrophic Out Of Pocket Spending (OOPS) on healthcare. This is in the backdrop of crumbling public health systems, which in turn was a consequence of a prolonged period of neglect of public healthcare and privatisation of health systems, as prescribed by the World Bank reports in 1987 and 1993.
Because of the devastating effects of payments during health shocks, OOPS became politically untenable and UHC was seen as a solution. Evidence of adverse effects of user charges was mounting too. In a way, for many international institutions, promotion of UHC meant a reversal of some of their previously held policy positions.
In 2014, the World Bank president Jim Yong Kim admitted : “There’s now just overwhelming evidence that those user fees actually worsened health outcomes. There’s no question about it. So did the bank get it wrong before? Yeah. I think the bank was ideological”.
Unfortunately, this new consensus has not yet shown much policy impact in India. The Indian public healthcare delivery system still has user charges, and exemptions for low-income groups are known to be extremely ineffective. The system is also being pushed towards an insurance-based model, which promotes private sector providers. Reportedly, India’s efforts towards UHC is to be based on the experience of Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY)– an insurance-based scheme targeting households below the poverty line.
This centrally sponsored scheme – which has been in operation for seven years – gives selected poor families (up to five members) an annual coverage of up to $470 worth of secondary level care for an annual fee of less than half a US dollar. RSBY, and several similar regional schemes operating in the last ten years have failed to significantly expand coverage – official data just released indicate that as much as 86% of the rural population and 82% of the urban population are still not covered under any government sponsored insurance scheme.
Despite the inconclusive and generally negative evidence on its impact, the high praise given to RSBY and other health insurance schemes by influential agencies including the World Bank and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has contributed significantly to its policy popularity. An Oxfam paper described such praise as “both premature and dangerously misleading”.
Despite the popularity of government- funded insurance schemes at the highest levels of policymaking, there is resistance within the government structures to objectively evaluate the performance and impact of the schemes. Fan and Mahal (2011) observed that politicians and administrators often presume that independent evaluations cause more damage than benefit, and governments in India are known to be hesitant towards conducting independent evaluations of health insurance schemes such as RSBY. It is often claimed that some “rigorous assessment” of its impact is done, but RSBY shares the scheme data “only with a carefully selected group of researchers” – this lack of transparency prevents public scrutiny.
Until now there is no disaggregated data available on government’s reimbursement to the health providers through RSBY. Simply put, we do not know how much money is going to the private sector, or how much is flowing back to the public sector. After it was quoted as a successful international UHC case study, and a potential model to expedite India’s UHC, the RSBY data portal stopped uploading even the basic state level data, which was being infrequently updated earlier.
The latest data available on the portal is from the first quarter of 2014. The latest evaluation published is from the first quarter of 2013. For many states like Bihar, latest data from many districts are from 2012. The allegation that RSBY is a private sector subsidy scheme still stands, particularly in the light of high prevalence of corruption and the limited or even negative impact that the scheme seems to have on OOP spending.
In the light of latest government’ evidence showing that a decade of promoting health insurance schemes across the country has resulted in only about 12% urban and 13% rural population getting covered, there is dire need of a rethink about how India can really achieve UHC. It needs to start with strengthening the public system that India already has rather than reinventing the wheel.