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.