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India’s Ambitious Health Care Plan Sparks Hope, Questions

“I am scared about how I will repay the money I have borrowed. What can a man working on daily wages do? It is in God’s hands,”

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Shavan Kumar has travelled to New Delhi with his wife from his village to get her treated for a heart condition at a government hospital, where treatment is free. VOA

From a small village in Uttar Pradesh, laborer Shavan Kumar has brought his 38-year-old wife to a government-run hospital New Delhi to be treated for a heart condition. But he worries that the $500 loan he has taken will not cover the cost of her medical care; although the treatment is free, he has to pay for medicines, tests and their stay in the city.

“I am scared about how I will repay the money I have borrowed. What can a man working on daily wages do? It is in God’s hands,” Kumar said.

The Indian government has announced it will implement what it calls the world’s largest public health insurance plan, offering coverages of about $8,000 to poor and low-income families. That could be a game-changer for the 63 million people like Shavan Kumar who are driven into poverty every year by “catastrophic” expenses on health care, according to the Health Ministry.

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Dubbed ‘Modicare’ in a reference of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the hugely ambitious scale of the project – which proposes to ensure 500 million people – has caused a wave of optimism in a country where improving access to health services has never been a political priority.

However, in a nation where many government initiatives are hobbled with poor implementation, there are concerns about how it will work and how it will be funded.

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Quality public hospitals such as the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi where Shavan Kumar brought his wife, are few in number, confined to the big cities and hugely overburdened. VOA

Priya Balasubramaniam, a health specialist at the Public Health Foundation in New Delhi questions whether the $300 million earmarked this year will get the project off the ground. “While this has definitely come with a bang, I think for those of us who want to move to the next level, it is really about the fiscal space that the government has allocated for a scheme as ambitious as this,” she says.

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Officials say the vast scale of the project will drive down insurance premiums to as little as $18 per year. That adds up to $1.7 billion – an outlay that the government plans to make with funds pooled by both the federal and state governments.

Closing rich and poor gap

Health experts also hope the insurance cover will improve the quality of care by opening the doors of India’s expensive private hospitals to the poor.

A massive gap exists between private and public hospitals. The former have state-of-the-art medical facilities but only the upper-income groups can afford their steep costs. On the other hand, quality public hospitals such as the All India Institute of Medical Sciences where Shavan Kumar brought his wife offer free treatment, but are few in number, confined to the big cities and hugely overburdened.

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Private hospitals in India offer state-of-the-art facilities but only people in upper-income groups can afford them. VOA

That is the dilemma that Hari Singh, a New Delhi resident, faced when he broke his knee in a road accident three months ago. Having no savings, he first went to a government hospital, but left quickly and headed to a private hospital.

“The conditions were so miserable, the toilets were filthy, two patients were put on one stretcher and there was no system at all. I got very scared,” he says.

ALSO READ: Diseased, Ignored and Suffering Silently: A look into the Health Status of Adivasi Women in Jharkhand

But to pay for his care he had to borrow $5,000 at a crippling interest rate of 5 percent a month. Now he does not know when he can return to his job as a driver or how to support his two young children.

Ashok Agarwal, founder of the Indian Institute of Health Management Research, hopes the new government project will change that. “For the first time poor people would have a choice to go to a center where they feel comfortable,” he says. “Once you have insurance which is willing to pay, then the load of the patients can go to the private sector also.”

He says it will also incentivize private hospitals to improve facilities to attract patients. “Imagine you can have 500 million customers at your doorstep. Which company would not like that to happen?”

Health professionals underline that the insurance initiative needs to go hand-in-hand with improved primary health services and point out that poor people often land up in hospitals because they cannot afford day-to-day medical care and medicines.

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The burden of disease rises among poor people because they cannot afford to buy needed medicines. VOA

But most government-run medical centers “are dysfunctional, lacking equipment, medicines and even qualified staff,” says Balasubramaniam, the health specialist at the Public Health Foundation in New Delhi. “You are focusing on the top of the pyramid while the foundations are still very shaky.” For example, Shavan Kumar may never have needed to head to a hospital in New Delhi if his wife’s condition had been diagnosed earlier.

But in a country where government spending on health care is among the lowest in the world – just 1 percent of the GDP – the project has sparked hope. “What the government has done in one stroke is to look at 500 million at the same time. I have no doubt it will take a few years to come on the ground and be stabilized, but the intent is very good,” says Agarwal. (VOA)

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Fragmentation Reason Behind Low Performance of Indian Healthcare

Fragmentation is the reason behind Indian healthcare's poor performance

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The reason behind the poor performance of the Indian healthcare is fragmentation. Pixabay

The vicious cycle of severe fragmentation is the reason for low performance of Indian healthcare, in comparison to other countries in Asia and elsewhere, a top official has said.

In his address at the inaugural function of the 24th edition of IIHMR University’s annual event ‘Pradanya’ with the theme “Future of Healthcare: Globalization, Innovations and You”, Special Secretary, NITI Aayog, Yaduvendra Mathur said: “The time has come to unify and transform the healthcare system to achieve optimum outcomes in terms of public health and Sustainable Development Goals.”

“India’s healthcare system lags much behind other nations. India figures at number 145 in global healthcare, compared to 92 for China, 71 for Sri Lanka, 138 for Indonesia and 111 for Egypt. The Out of Pocket (OOP) expenditure for India is high at 63 per cent, compared to just 36 per cent for China and 37 per cent for Indonesia.

“Such sub-par performance of Indian healthcare is due to its deeply fragmented nature. This fragmentation needs to be addressed through better risk profiling/insurance of patients, strategic purchase of medicines and medical supplies by government and care givers, better organization of healthcare delivery, and creating a digital health landscape.

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India’s healthcare system lags much behind other nations. Pixabay

“Ayushman Bharat and initiatives like National Medical Commission Act and National Digital Health Blueprint have created a strong foundation for such integration,” he added.

The future health system of India needs five focus areas: Deliver on the unfinished public health agenda, shift health financing away from out-of-pocket spend to larger insurers, integrate service delivery horizontally and vertically, empower citizens to become better buyers of health, and harness the power of digital health, Mathur suggested.

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In his address, IIHMR University Chairman, Dr S.D. Gupta said: “Future healthcare is intrinsically linked with globalisation and technological innovations. We need to visualise what the scenario is going to be in India in the next 30 to 40 years.”

The three-day programme, which started Monday, saw over 35 health experts from India and abroad attending the technical sessions and panel discussions. (IANS)