IT is frustrating to watch a major public welfare initiative meant to ensure universal health coverage for 25m families grinding to a halt. A lifeline for those unable to afford hospitalisation and expensive medical interventions continues to be rolled back by the PML-N through the caretaker set-up in Punjab. State Life Insurance has already warned the provincial health authorities that it will be compelled to discontinue the facility of free hospitalisation under the Sehat Sahulat Programme — the official name for the health insurance initiative instituted by the previous PTI government — because of non-payment of the pending premium of Rs83.5bn to the insurer. As per a report in this paper, provincial officials managing the project blame the situation on the political animosity between the PML-N and PTI. The first hint that the PML-N might shut down the scheme came several weeks back, when the federal planning ministry raised objections to the flagship programme, labelling it ‘wasteful and untargeted’. However, few had thought that the government would actually implement its plans to roll back the initiative, which has so far benefited some 3.2m patients across the province. It is reported by the health authorities that the free facility, which is available at 724 public and private hospitals, has mostly been used by people who were not able to pay for healthcare costs from their own pockets.
It will be unfortunate if this project is shut down over fears that the PML-N’s rival may cash in on it at the time of the next elections. Universal health insurance is Pakistan’s best chance to successfully achieve one of the core goals adopted by the UN’s SDG agenda to protect the most vulnerable segments of society. Pakistan is far behind even countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in terms of the availability of quality healthcare and its accessibility to vulnerable groups. If the government is concerned about wastage, it should sit with the insurance company to improve the initiative to ensure that its gains are delivered to all citizens, particularly those living in backward regions, and that checks are placed on private healthcare facilities to prevent them from abusing it to their financial advantage. In doing so, there should be no compromise on the quality of healthcare services. The rollback of a public welfare project such as this one for political reasons can only be called criminal.
Published in Dawn, March 28th, 2023
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