Poorer sections can benefit from AYUSH's inclusion under private insurance coverage only if comes under the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana

The National Health Insurance Regulations recently had a significant new entry. A notification passed under the Official Gazette of Government of India, February 18, 2013, paved the way for the inclusion of AYUSH under insurance coverage.

This implies that treatment under AYUSH, which stands for Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy, will be reimbursed under medical insurance. Naturally, this has been viewed as a game changer for traditional medicine and treatment methods, whose fortunes have dwindled with the onslaught of modern medicine, which produces quicker results.

It is likely that bringing in AYUSH under the insurance scheme will provide the much needed support base to traditional medicine and attract patients, especially those with chronic ailments, to go in for long term treatment; homoeopathy usually takes a much slower route to cure than allopathy. With almost 280 ayurvedic formulations to treat various diseases listed under the scheme, the market looks positive.

Having sensed its growing demands and now the benefits of insurance, major private companies have already tuned in, introducing ayurveda with special covers. They expect profits to soar and the industry to grow substantially. So far, so good.

But does this ensure a complete inclusion of affected populations? Actually, far from it. The private players are unlikely to attract the poorer sections of the population, who cannot afford even basic treatment, nor show much interest in serving them. Ayurveda, though growing, continues to be the alternate preference of the elite — thus leaving the government with the moral duty of extending the benefits of cover treatment of ayurveda to the poor.

However, despite introducing the scheme, the government itself is yet to adopt AYUSH into its health insurance policies. By not extending AYUSH into the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY), which has 28 million beneficiaries, the poor will continue to be deprived of quality ayurvedic treatment at nominal rates, opines Professor Anand Chaudhary of the Banaras Hindu University’s (BHU) Faculty of Ayurveda, Institute of Medical Sciences. He recently wrote to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav to include ayurveda in Below Poverty Line schemes in the State and provide reimbursement of treatment of ayurveda to State employees.

In Uttar Pradesh itself, over 60 lakh persons are enrolled under the RSBY. A majority of them cannot afford AYUSH even though it is cheaper than allopathic treatment.

According to Professor Chaudhary, by limiting AYUSH to private players, the State is depriving the poor of ayurveda’s benefits. Moreover, not much has been done to bring the new regulations into the domain of the middle class. “Many diseases are best cured by AYUSH. The poor generally depend on traditional methods of treatment. The escalating cost of allopathic drugs is still a challenge to provide quality patient care with minimal resources. When the National Rural Health Mission is serving the public successfully with allopathy and AYUSH, then why not under the RSBY as well?” he wonders.

An expert in quality control and standardisation of ayurvedic medicines, Professor Chaudhary says that the pharmacoeconmics of ayurvedic medicines is much simpler today in light of the notification of Essential Drug List of Ayurvedic drugs by the Department of AYUSH. Two years prior to that, the WHO funded the first meeting of Ayurvedic Swasthya Bima Yojana, held at BHU. Government officials, AYUSH practitioners, academicians and ayurvedic insurance companies represented the meet, where a proposal was passed that the Indian government direct insurance and health companies to include ayurveda into their insurance policies. While that has been done with the latest gazette order, inclusion of AYUSH into the RSBY should be the next step.