THE planning ministry is reported to have raised objections to Punjab’s flagship universal health coverage programme. It has branded the expenditure on the free health insurance initiative, launched by the previous PTI government, as wasteful and untargeted. The ministry’s opposition to the project is regrettable, even though it is unlikely to result in the scheme’s shutdown, unless the provincial caretaker dispensation decides to toe the centre’s’ dictates. It will be a big mistake if the government decides to abolish this public welfare initiative over fears that its political adversary could cash in on it in the elections, or because some myopic bureaucrats are not capable of seeing its value for low-income people who cannot afford to pay for hospitalisation, surgeries, and other expensive medical treatments. While the health insurance scheme is for everyone, data shows that over 3.1m people who have benefited from this facility so far come from low- to middle-income households who could not otherwise have afforded the actual cost of the required medical intervention from their personal, meagre resources. It is also incorrect that international lenders are opposed to the programme. After all, universal health coverage is one of the core MDGs adopted in the UN and WHO’s strategic agenda to protect the most vulnerable segments.
True, the initiative needs some improvements to ensure that its gains are delivered to the people living in remote areas, where quality hospitals and healthcare facilities are absent. It will take some time, perhaps years, before every permanent resident of Punjab is able to use the free health insurance facility. Pakistan is much behind other South Asian countries like India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in terms of the availability of quality healthcare and its accessibility to the poor and vulnerable groups, particularly women and children, who are more prone to disease and cannot afford medical treatment on their own. The situation demands that the government reinforce universal health coverage under the health insurance scheme on a fast-track basis rather than roll it back. This will ultimately plug the leakages in the health budget and compel public-sector hospitals to improve patient management and service delivery in order to compete with their private counterparts. It goes without saying that the success of the health insurance project will cut down the government’s current wasteful spending on its hospitals, besides making the healthcare system more efficient.
Published in Dawn, February 7th, 2023
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