Free and Public

Ensuring universal health coverage for the informal sector, poor and vulnerable groups

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 [1]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[2].

Conclusion

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:

  1. Strong political will: health was a political priority in countries that progressed towards UHC. Public demand (in Turkey) for healthcare was also influential in getting government’ commitment
  2. A “new” consensus that poor people, even collectively, cannot pay for their health care. UHC requires predominately public funding in a big pool (e.g. from tax). Extensive pooling leads to maximum redistribution of resources. No country has ever achieved UHC without heavy public expenditure. Even rich countries such as Japan, Germany and France increasingly rely of budget subsidy. Some commentators concluded from the World Bank study that Thailand and Mexico need to follows the example of Portugal and Spain by eliminating payroll payment and opting for tax finance. Chile has succeeded by delinking entitlement from the employment status
  3. The priority of UHC is providing services for the entire population then incrementally increase the scope of those services
  4. There are two ways to finance UHC: a) a functioning National Health Service based on tax financing, or b) public financing (budget transfer) into a national SHI to cover informal sector, poor and vulnerable groups. An important starting point is providing a standard package through all schemes whether based on insurance or public funding
  5. Financial accessibility is a necessary but not sufficient for UHC. Quality of service is of equal importance
  6. Countries’ claims of increased population coverage need to be backed up by objective assessments, in terms of: enhanced financial protection and quality and effective service coverage

 


[1] Country presentation at EMRO meeting in Cairo

[2]Country presentation at the EMRO meeting in Cairo

 

Share

One Response to “Ensuring universal health coverage for the informal sector, poor and vulnerable groups”

  1. […] But while tangible progress is being made to embrace the concepts of social and financial inclusion in the health sector, for many the question still remains: how can I pay for the care my family and I require? Some will answer this query by turning to employer or state-provided insurance (pdf), typically available to members of the formal economy. Those less fortunate might turn to family or a moneylender for cash, or worse even be held at the health facility until their family could pay the charges – fear of this has put off expectant mothers in Nairobi slums from seeking professional healthcare. This is why the UHC movement goes to pains to emphasize that radical change must occur in order that health coverage be extended to the world’s most vulnerable populations. […]

    • Mohga Kamal-Yanni says:

      Indeed radical reforms are needed for health services to reach poor and marginalised people especially women. Governments with donors help, must scale up investment in health service that is publicly financed and publicly delivered. Evidence clearly shows that all countries that achieved or progressed towards achieving UHC have made great public investment in public health services. These countries include those mentioned in the Global Health Council blog that you copied from e.g Thailand, Mexico and Rwanda. It puzzles me how evidence shows that even small user fees in the public service can deter women from using the service, yet people still promote private for profit, i.e charging the cost of service, as a way to reach poorer women!!

  2. […] But while tangible progress is being made to embrace the concepts of social and financial inclusion in the health sector, for many the question still remains: how can I pay for the care my family and I require? Some will answer this query by turning to employer or state-provided insurance (pdf), typically available to members of the formal economy. Those less fortunate might turn to family or a moneylender for cash, or worse even be held at the health facility until their family could pay the charges – fear of this has put off expectant mothers in Nairobi slums from seeking professional healthcare. This is why the UHC movement goes to pains to emphasise that radical change must occur in order that health coverage be extended to the world’s most vulnerable populations. […]

Leave a Reply

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