Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech was headlined by the announcement of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Abhiyan, previously Ayushman Bharat. The National Health Protection Mission (NHPM), or Modicare, will roll out on 25 September. It is expected to provide basic health insurance cover for 100 million families, based on a range of socioeconomic deprivation criteria culled from the Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011 (SECC). The scheme will provide coverage up to ₹500,000 per family for secondary and tertiary care and is expected to cost ₹11,000 crore per year. This cost will be shared according to a 60-40 formula between the Center and states. While many details remain to be worked out, and funding and implementation challenges will be considerable, the attempt to create a publicly-funded national health insurance scheme for the poorer half of the population is an ambitious and laudable goal. This is an era of a backlash against liberalization and globalization everywhere, driven by people’s inchoate sense that they have been the losers of market-based economics.
It is even truer in a vibrant and politically-competitive democracy with many poor voters, such as India, that capitalism and the market system must prove their legitimacy each and every day. An important component of creating and sustaining political legitimacy for the market, which is key for the pursuit of further liberalizing reforms, is laying the foundations for a re-engineered welfare state for India that provides basic public goods to the most deprived members of society. The irony is that decades of socialism and central planning in India, emanating from Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision, failed to achieve this. We have created a welfare apparatus that is corrupt, wasteful, and ineffective in addressing the needs of the poorest. One telling fact testifying to this is that out-of-pocket expenses account for a whopping 67 percent of total health spending. This is 12th highest among all nations and sixth highest even amongst lower and middle-income countries.
The object of a well-functioning publicly-funded national health insurance scheme must clearly be to reduce the financial burden on the poorest of illness, both chronic and catastrophic. Yet, we would caution that unless supplemented with ancillary policy innovations, Modicare by itself is unlikely to achieve its objectives. In particular, the scheme covers only the costs of treatment and hospitalization at the secondary and tertiary levels. Notably, out-of-pocket expenses—such as medications and diagnostic tests—are not covered. We are not suggesting that the proposed coverage of Modicare be expanded to cover such expenses. Our argument is a different one. Modicare does not extend to primary healthcare, which, we believe, is the weakest link in the provision of public health in India. As much as 55 percent of households in India opt for privately provided primary healthcare, even though free government-provided primary care, in theory, exists down to the village level. Clearly, this system is not working. The crucial point is that poorly delivered primary care inevitably increases the burden on health and finance at the secondary and tertiary levels down the line.
Data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4, 2015-16) shows that almost half of respondents cite the poor quality of public health provision as the reason for preferring private care. Other reasons include the absence of a nearby facility, long wait times, inconvenient timings, and even the fact that health personnel are simply not present to do their job (according to about 15 percent of those surveyed). The clear upshot is that, unless supplemented with accessible, affordable, and high-quality primary healthcare, publicly-funded health insurance that focuses making secondary and tertiary healthcare more affordable will only have a marginal impact on improving overall health outcomes for the poor and disadvantaged. It could end up costing the government much more than it should. While Modicare rightly allows insurance to be used at both public and empaneled private hospitals and clinics, recognizing the reality that much of secondary and tertiary healthcare is, in fact, privately provided, by itself, it cannot address an important market failure at the primary level. The libertarian argument that a voucher system works better than public provision of primary education does not translate well to primary healthcare provision in India because of the absence of adequate or any privately provided primary healthcare in the poorest and more remote rural regions of the country.
There are people so poor that private providers simply will not deliver care at a market-determined price for lack of affordability. Besides, hardly any private doctors or healthcare professionals are willing to serve in rural locations—indeed, a catastrophic market failure. For much of rural India and the most disadvantaged of our citizens, public provision of primary healthcare remains the only solution. Regrettably, this system has thus far failed to deliver, forcing most Indians to turn to whatever private care they are able to afford. With all of the discussion about Modicare, few may have noticed that this year’s Union budget, which created Modicare, also announced the creation of 150,000 publicly provided “health and wellness centers”. These are presumably targeting remote and under-served areas, with a budget of ₹1200 crore in the current fiscal year. These are evidently intended to supplement the faltering public primary healthcare sector. Indeed, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley went so far as to describe these new centers as the foundation of India’s health system in the budget speech. If, indeed, they are given their due prominence in a holistic approach to healthcare, with sufficient funding and adequate capacity to deliver basic primary healthcare to the most vulnerable, we would be much more sanguine about the chances for long-term success of Modicare. – Livemint