Free and Public

Private sector heterogeneity and Universal Health Coverage By Dr. Anuj Kapilashrami, Lecturer in Global Public Health, University of Edinburgh

Universal Health Coverage has risen quickly to the top of the global health policy agenda, yet debates around how best to deliver healthcare to achieve UHC – and the role of the private sector -are often unhelpfully polarised.

This blog attempts at ‘setting the scene’ as discussed in a joint session by Oxfam and the Global Public Health Unit of the University of Edinburgh last year in the International Conference on Public Policy in Milan. The blog introduces key concept of Public Private Partnerships (PPP), its rising salience and the basic premise it rests on, and discusses the nature of private sector and issues relevant to achieving the UHC goals.

 The rhetoric of public private mix:

Public private partnership has emerged as key priority within the framework of Universal Health Coverage (UHC), as a gateway to improved access to services -even if in its most narrow sense of expanding coverage. There has been a sharp rise in partnerships with the private sector – not only in Europe and other high income countries, but increasingly in Low and Middle income countries (LMIC) – to deliver health care infrastructure, clinical and non-clinical services, technology systems, and manage facilities.

Interactions between the public and the private sector are not new, especially in LMICs where health systems are historically characterised as pluralist and hybrid. However the ascendency of private sector in the last two decades can be attributed to the rise of the Public Private Partnerships paradigm; a post 1990s development. Such paradigm proposes a re-evaluation of the structure and function of government in relation to delivery of public services based on the assumption that hierarchical bureaucracy- the organisational form of the public delivery system is inefficient and that introduction of market mechanisms can substantially enhance its efficiency (Osborne 2000, Mills 1995).

Broadly guided by the theoretical foundations of ‘new public management’, such paradigm is concerned with injecting ‘business like practices’ into public sector agencies (Shaw 1999, 2004). Advocates for this model also argue that by increased diversity of provision, partnership initiatives secure better quality infrastructure and services at ‘optimal’ cost and risk allocation (Kwak et al 2009, Roehrich et al 2014). Overall, the literature often portrays PPPs as win-win arrangements in weak, under-resourced and deficient public systems.

However, while the partnership agenda gains currency in health (and other public) policy debates, important gaps remain in its understandings, both conceptual and empirical, and practitioner comprehension of what constitutes the private sector.

First, there is ambiguity in defining the ‘private’. Without adequate differentiation of the nature, scale and scope of the private sector engaged, evidence from one experiment involving a certain private entity on a particular health problem is used selectively to justify and legitimise involvement of ‘private’ sector at large. This is clear in the mix-up between profit making private sector and non-profit organisations.

Non-profit, non-governmental and faith based organisations including networks of people affected by particular health problems, mainly HIV, are gaining prominence. Their role in health care, especially service delivery, has significantly diversified in recent years and is no longer restricted to undertaking outreach work in family planning and reproductive health services for governments. Partnering with well-established faith based organisations in Africa or NGO managing primary health centres in India have distinct implications for health systems and governance than posed by engaging for-profit private sector such as health insurance companies.

The commercial sector on the other hand is very diverse and heterogeneous: including practitioners (of mainstream and traditional medicine), pharmacies, hospitals, pharma and medical devices companies, products manufacturers, suppliers and retailers, as well as other actors in the non-health sector such as insurance companies. On one end of the spectrum, there are informal sector, often under qualified providers offering the only source of care (or drugs) available to certain populations. On the other end there are large corporate (national or multinational) hospitals at the receiving end of substantial investments from international agencies such as the International Finance Corporation, multinational companies as well as State subsidies through arrangements involving their empanelment in national and state health insurance schemes. In the middle are small scale private enterprises such as clinics, nursing homes, drug vendors and pharmacies or larger non-health sector corporations, e.g. cement, automobile companies establishing/running anti-retroviral treatment centres (and other facilities) through partnerships with public sector under national disease control programmes.

Subsuming such widely differing arrangements under a common label of ‘public private partnerships’ obscures important distinctions between interactions and creates a false sense of novelty of the PPP approach. Engaging these diverse actors has distinct implications (and raises different concerns) for achievement of UHC goals. Distinguishing these will allow for a better assessment of their real scope and ability (or inability) to contribute to UHC goals, and explain variation in practice based on separation of ownership and risk bearing between the public and private.

Second, there is significant variation in the meaning and practice of partnerships. The term is used loosely to refer to almost any kind of arrangement (including ‘contracting in’) between the ‘private’ and the ‘public’. Partnering has extended to describe a wide range of activities involving an ever-expanding web of relationships between donors, governments, NGOs, community members, and corporate and business houses and their representatives (Kapilashrami 2010). Further, while there is a reasonably sized body of  literature (empirical and conceptual) describing and evaluating global health PPPs (likes of the Global Fund to fight AIDS TB and Malaria, Roll back malaria, GAIN) and their country level interactions, a huge gap exists in understandings of PPPs at national and sub-national level.

Third, there are significant gaps in understanding the dynamics of PPP arrangements: these are not discrete models of interaction between one public, one defined private entity for example insurance companies or pharmacies. These are often complex incremental in nature and need to be seen in the changing political economy of health systems. This is evident from state partnerships that engage insurance companies and other private entities as third party administrators managing purchasing of care through provisions that engage private facilities to provide services at primary, secondary, tertiary level.

Subject to the nature of private sector agency partnered with and the design/ nature of partnership, important questions arise for achieving the goals of UHC.

These include:

  • Increased competition and dual system of ‘free’ and ‘paid’ services as observed in private sector partnerships in disease control programmes whereby corporate centres charged for services (HIV testing, laboratory tests and CD4 counts) offered free in public hospitals (Kapilashrami and McPake 2012). This affects affordability and access, and leads to opportunistic behaviour and reduced accountability of providers.
  • Problems of quality among untrained and unregulated informal providers and regulatory infringements by drug vendors and pharmacies; irrational prescriptions and unnecessary investigations and surgical procedures (Garg et al 2014, Duggal et al. 2013)
  • Concerns around affordability resulting from cost escalation and diversion of costs from primary level care which have negative implications for women as service users and carers (Oxfam 2013)
  • Changes in governance and customary relationships between institutions, providers and users as State becomes financier and guarantor of services purchased from third parties. Such complex arrangement undermines traditional accountability systems and obscures users understanding of their entitlements to care.

Partnership with private sector is portrayed as win-win arrangements (Sanbrailo 2013). However, such projections disregard the heterogeneity in the private sector, and lack any systematic assessments of their effects, pathways through which health sector goals are influenced, and any uncertainties and in-coherences arising from their operations. Thus, careful and comprehensive assessment of the nature, scale and scope of these initiatives, alongside their underlying assumptions is an undeniable necessity for progressing the UHC agenda.


Kapilashrami A. and McPake B. (2012). Editor’s Choice:Transforming governance or reinforcing hierarchies and competition: examining the public and hidden transcripts of the Global Health initiatives and HIV in India. Health Policy Plan. 28(6):626-635

Kapilashrami A. (2010) Public private partnerships: The discourse, the practice and the system-wide effects of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. A case of HIV management in India. PhD Thesis. Queen Margaret University, UK

Kwak, Y. H., Chih, Y., & Ibbs, C. W. (2009). Towards a comprehensive understanding of public private partnerships for infrastructure development. California Management Review, 51(2), 51-78

Osborne SP (ed). 2000. Public-Private Partnerships: Theory and Practice in International Perspective. Routledge: London

Roehrich, J., Lewis, M. K., & George, G. (2014). Are Public-Private Partnerships a Healthy Option? A Systematic Literature Review of “Constructive” Partnerships between Public and Private Actors

Oxfam (2013) Universal health Coverage: Why health insurance schemes are leaving the poor behind

Sanbrailo, J. (2013). Public-Private Partnerships: A Win-Win Solution. Blog on Huffington Post. 09/25/2013

Shaw, R. P. (2004). New Trends in Public Sector Management in Health: applications in developed and developing countries


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