Brazil, Mexico and Thailand have done it. Many countries with a sound understanding of development look at Universal Health Coverage as a vital requirement to achieve it. India is at a crossroads. Introducing UHC in the 12th Plan can transform the lives of Indians, create new jobs and galvanise the economy.

Most people would agree that one’s income or caste or gender should not bar one’s ability to get decent quality health care when one falls ill. A poor person should not have to borrow heavily, sell off her meagre assets, or decide not to get treated at all because she can’t afford the cost of care. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens to many people today. Far too many households fall below the poverty line trying to cope with the high cost of health care. Even for middle class families, the rising cost of staying healthy can put a serious strain on the budget. The health care system is seriously broken despite the existence over many decades of primary, secondary and tertiary health centres and public hospitals open to all. And despite the rapid growth of high end corporate hospitals that get free public land and other subsidies in return for the (often broken) promise of reserving a share of beds for poor people.

Click here for The ABC of UHC (pdf)

Ensuring universal health care is a major concern of governments the world over. The rapid growth of high end technologies for diagnosis and treatment, and the fact that people are living longer and are more likely to need health support when they age, has become a challenge even in countries like the U.K., long known for its ability to guarantee decent and affordable care through a National Health Service. Here in India, however, technology and aging are not yet the main problems. Consistent public underinvestment in health — barely above 1% of GDP — is a major reason why health care is so unaffordable for so many people. This puts us near the bottom of all countries for this measure. Around 70% of total health spending is out of pocket, and around 70% of that is on drugs. Poor people go less and less to public facilities to which they would go earlier because they almost never have the free drugs they are supposed to provide. This is a great irony for a country that has gained respect in Africa for making drugs affordable through our export of generics to them.

Generic drugs

An important low hanging fruit identified by the High Level Expert Group (HLEG) on Universal Health Coverage (UHC) set up by the Planning Commission is to provide generic drugs through the public system. The HLEG also recommended in its report submitted in October 2011 that health care should be available to all citizens with a smart card and should be cashless at the point of service. An UHC system should provide a combination of preventive, promotive, curative and rehabilitative care through a package of primary, secondary and tertiary services. An emphasis on prevention and promotion at the primary level would be both cost effective and best in terms of health outcomes.

Higher public spending

The HLEG called for stepping up public investment in health to reach 2.5% of GDP by the end of the 12 Five Year Plan, and argued that a strengthened public sector must be the bedrock of reforms. But how to deal with the fact that public facilities themselves ignore public health, often lack adequate staff and equipment, and treat patients with scant respect? More investment must be backed up by the creation of a public health cadre, the recognition of a three year medical qualification in order to increase the availability of qualified professionals, and more staff at the lowest level. And a strong set of management reforms to improve quality and performance of public facilities must be urgently implemented.

The HLEG’s support for public investment in health is backed by the experience of many countries — Europe, Canada, Brazil, Thailand, Mexico, to name a few. But one cannot ignore the reality of the private health sector or the fact that it can and ought to be made to play its part in the move towards universal health coverage. At present, private facilities, under a veneer of respectful treatment, can be hugely expensive, and often do not provide appropriate or high quality clinical services. Ensuring that private health providers play a responsible role requires that we move away from ad hoc and unregulated public-private partnerships (PPPs) and also away from the practice of giving subsidies and freebies like land and tax-breaks to the private sector without any effective mechanisms to ensure accountability. An important recommendation of the HLEG is to set up independent and effective Health Regulatory and Development Authorities at both national and state levels that would supervise the quality of services delivered by both public and private sector providers. These bodies would ensure among other things that standard treatment guidelines form the basis of clinical care across both sectors, with adequate monitoring to improve the quality of care and control costs. They would also ensure grievance redress mechanisms by linking up with measures to ensure citizen participation and accountability. This has been done very effectively in countries that are at the forefront of the move towards universal health care such as Thailand and Brazil, and must be implemented in India.

(Gita Sen is Professor at the Centre for Public Policy, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore)