Health experts from the eleven Member States of the WHO’s South-East Asia Region met in New Delhi last week (16-17 April) to brainstorm about universal health care in the region. WHO is urging countries in the region to give priority to public health and the health needs of the poor through adoption of appropriate technology and health systems that are anchored at the community level.
“The Government of India accords great importance to ensuring equitable health care to all its citizens. The National Rural Health Mission, one of the largest public health programmes, is an ambitious multi-sectoral initiative taken by the Government of India in 2005-06 to make essential health care available, accessible and affordable to the rural citizens”, stated India's Union Health and Family Welfare Minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, while inaugurating the two day deliberations at the WHO SEARO's meeting on Universal Health Coverage.
The Minister said “It is matter of grave concern that people in our region have the highest out-of-pocket expenditures on health, as compared to anywhere in the world. In India, out of the total out-of-pocket expenses, nearly 62% is incurred by the rural populations.”
Azad added that at this point in time there is sufficient evidence and experience from all over the globe that indicates that Universal Health Coverage is a potential tool that can reduce prevalent health inequities, contribute to human development and accelerate our quest for Health for All.
Azad hoped that the international experiences presented at the conference would help us to understand what other countries are doing to cover all segments of their populations particularly, the disadvantaged, marginalized and hard to reach sections in rural areas. He said that in the scenario of several sectors competing for scarce resources, a critical issue that needs intensive discussion is health financing.
The three strategic dimensions for universal health coverage are:
- Population coverage, where all citizens are covered by health services irrespective of capacity to pay;
- A service package offered universally to all citizens customized to meet ground realities and all resource needs, including financing; and
- Ensuring utilization, affordability and sustainability.
It was noted during the deliberations that Countries have placed different emphasis on each of these three dimensions in their path to universal health coverage:
- China for example is targeting access to a limited package of services for its entire population in its first phase of universal health coverage.
- Nepal is committed to providing maternal and child health services free at primary level and prioritizing better access for the poor in secondary care.
- Sri Lanka, on the other hand, has been successfully delivering a more comprehensive package for sometime now.
“Equity remains the underpinning principle that we must not lose sight of” said Dr. Samlee Plianbangchang, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia.