Daily Southtown

India to start rolling out health coverage for poor

- By Vidhi Doshi

NEW DELHI — India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to roll out the first phases of a new health care program Wednesday that could bring affordable health care to 100 million families.

First announced in February, the National Health Protection Mission will give poor families health coverage of up to $7,100 every year, which could go a long way in reducing crippling health care costs for a half-billion people.

At the time, Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said this was going to be the “world’s biggest government-funded health care program.”

It’s an ambitious plan that could have vast appeal among voters, but one that also faces major challenges.

Experts say that even if the government can provide insurance to so many people, India lacks the health care infrastruc­ture to provide even the most basic services for its population.

Health care in the world’s most populous democracy is characteri­zed by a yawning gap between the services available in urban and rural parts of the country and between rich and poor. State-funded hospitals face huge shortages of beds and staff, and because of the scarcity of medical facilities in villages, many have to travel for hours to cities for care.

Medical costs are the top reason people plunge below the poverty line, and millions of families fall into debt to pay for care.

Modi’s plan could change all that, the government says. “This is going to be a game changer,” said Indu Bhushan, CEO of the program.

India has seen a huge economic leap over the past three decades, but lags behind in social welfare and in quality of life indicators.

A health care program of this scale — covering around 40 percent of India’s population — could clinch Modi’s reputation as a leader who can deliver vast social change ahead of general elections next year.

India spends 1.4 percent of its gross domestic product on health care compared with China’s 3.1 percent and 8.3 percent in the United States, according to the World Bank.

According to a 2010 study, 63 million people fall below the poverty line every year because of health care costs, and over 70 percent of medical bills are paid out-of-pocket by patients.

Even with the new public health care plan, however, India simply does not have the doctors and hospitals to serve so many hundreds of millions.

There is one doctor for every 1,315 people — most of whom work in private hospitals and live in cities, which means millions of Indians turn to quacks or traditiona­l medicine when they fall ill.

With this expansion of affordable health care, demand for services is likely to explode.

Bhusan said that there will be 5 million more procedures in the country, and the need for 35 million more hospital beds.

“In theory those beds exist, but in reality, those beds may not be there.”

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