The Government’s Apathy to Healthcare in India

The Union budegt presented last month by the finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, is hugely disappointing for the healthcare sector in the country. For many years now people associated with healthcare in the country have been waiting for big-ticket reforms in the sector, but the government has been turning a deaf ear. This year too, the story is no different.

The healthcare services in the country are not only woefully inadequate but also unevenly distributed. The healthcare industry, which is hugely dependent on private enterprise is just not attracting enough investments. Setting up and managing a hospital till it breaks even and makes money requires huge upfront investments. Presently, India has 860 beds for a million people, way below the WHO’s norm of  3960 beds for a million people. Studies by E&Y and KPMG have indicated that India needs to add 100000 beds per year for the next 20 years to reach close to this figure. This alone entails a spend of Rs. 50000 Cr. per annum. Compare this with what the government proposes to spend on healthcare in the next financial year, Rs. 22300 Cr. While this is 14% more than what the government spent last year, this amount is clearly insufficient.

The National Rural Health Mission, the flagship government programme for providing healthcare services in rural areas is riddled with inefficiencies. The government-run Primary Healthcare Centres are usually understaffed, ill-equipped and provide the most basic level of healthcare. Rural and semi urban India also needs good professionally managed secondary and tertiary care hospitals, which provide reasonably good quality healthcare at affordable rates. It seems that the government does not have the will power or the resources to usher in healthcare reforms.

Amazingly, the private sector entrepreneurs are willing to step in and bridge the gap.  All they need is a little help from the government in the form of tax holidays, duty reduction or abolition of duties on medical devices, easy availability of funding from government institutions at soft rates, longer payback periods and land at concessional rates. The government should also set up a regulatory body, a watchdog, which will keep an eye on hospitals being set up through this mechanism. The watchdog is critical as it will establish guidelines for setting up the hospitals, monitor progress, ensure quality through regular audits, lay down a fair pricing mechanism and in general ensure that the private sector, while availing of government policy benefits delivers on the promise of efficient, good quality and easily accessible care.

This is really not too difficult to achieve. Look at how private participation has revolutionized telecommunications in our country. Today India has more than half a billion mobile phone connections, the tariffs are the lowest in the world and even remote, far-flung and fairly inaccessible areas are connected (I had my phone working in the Nubra valley in Laddakh). The phones generally work, the services are efficient and the private sector companies, who had the foresight to start early are making profits. Some are even planning to go global and compete with the best in the world. The TRAI, which is the government watchdog is seen as an impartial and fairly efficient body, doing its job of advising the government on policy matters and ensuring compliance and a level playing field amongst all the operators.

No country can progress and aspire to be an economic superpower unless its citizens have access to good quality healthcare services. Considering India’s size and a population of over a billion people, (the majority living in rural areas), it is imperative that the government kick-start  reforms in this critical area sooner than later. If no significant policy initiatives have been announced this year, can the healthcare industry bodies (like those associated with CII and FICCI) lobby with the government, initiate debate and fuel informed discussion amongst all stake holders so that public opinion can be rallied in favour of these reforms.

Healthcare services impact the health of the nation. It is time all the healthcare stakeholders including the government sat together to prepare the blueprint for the next generation healthcare services for the country. This is very important because, unless we have robust, universally accessible, reasonably priced healthcare services for our citizens, all our claims about being an economic superpower will remain hollow and truly meaningless.

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