This week, Vietnam will host the twelfth ASEAN Health Minister’s Meeting in Hanoi. Universal Health Coverage (UHC) is likely to take center-stage in discussions, both formal and informal, among the region’s policymakers. After all, the drive for UHC, backed by large increases in public spending to subsidize coverage, is one of the most uniting features of health policy in the ASEAN region today.
Vietnam is somewhat forerunner in the region, having steadily expanded health insurance coverage through the 1990s. Through the Law of Social Health Insurance in 2008, Vietnam consolidated existing health insurance programs and adopted a single payer design ahead of some other larger ASEAN countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines. Today, not only is 68% of the population enrolled in health insurance but significant public sector investments have also been made to the supply side infrastructure and health human resource capacity of Vietnam in order to meet the growing demand for health care.
Subsidized health insurance is unlikely to lead to Universal Health Coverage (UHC); insurance coverage doesn’t always improve financial protection and when it does, doesn’t necessarily eliminate financial protection concerns; and tackling provider incentives may be just as – if not more – important in the UHC agenda as demand-side initiatives. These are the three big and somewhat counterintuitive conclusions of the Health Equity and Financial Protection in Asia (HEFPA) research project that I jointly coordinated with Eddy van Doorslaer and Owen O’Donnell.
As we all now know, UHC is all about ensuring that everyone – irrespective of their ability to pay – can access the health services they need without suffering undue financial hardship in the process. The HEFPA project set out to explore the effectiveness of a number of UHC strategies in a region of the world that has seen a lot of UHC initiatives: East Asia. The project pooled the skills of researchers from six Asian countries (Cambodia, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam), several European universities and the World Bank.
Nobody likes to be stung. Doctors regard it as unethical. Publishers say it betrays the trust of their profession. But the fact is, as three recent studies have demonstrated, sting operations can be extremely effective at exposing questionable professional practices, and answering questions that other methods can't credibly answer.
Sting #1: Are open-access journals any good?
Much of the world has gotten fed up with the old academic publishing business. Companies like the Anglo-Dutch giant Elsevier and the German giant Springer earn high profit margins from their academic journals (Elsevier earns 36% profit, according to The Economist), through a mix of ‘free’ inputs from academics (the article itself and the peer-review process) and high (and rapidly rising) subscription charges that impede access by academics working in universities whose libraries can’t afford the subscriptions. Of course, many of these universities paid for the authors’ time in the first place, and/or that of the peer-reviewers; tax-payers also contributed, by direct subsidizing universities and/or by the research grants that supported the research assistants, labs, etc. Unsurprisingly, libraries, universities, academics and tax-payers aren’t happy.
The debate over how to ensure good health services for all while assuring affordability is nothing new.
However, it has recently acquired new impetus under the guise of Universal Health Coverage (UHC). Discussions around UHC are contentious and as Tim Evans recently pointed out, “a lot of the discussion gets stuck on whether financing of the system will be through government revenue, through taxes, or through contributions to insurance.”
You might not think of health insurance as a suspenseful subject, but a recently released book on the subject proves different. As such, there is one missing entry on the back cover, describing the book "Government-Sponsored Health Insurance in India: Are You Covered?" by authors Gerard La Forgia and Somil Nagpal. Perhaps something like “The authors play with their readers’ nerves as they drill deeper and deeper into the mysterious workings of health insurance programs in India. Slowly a multi-faceted picture emerges, which the authors skillfully bring to bustling life, not least by adding fiscal and political economy spice throughout.”
While we non-physicians may feel a bit peeved when we hear “Trust me, I’m a doctor”, our medical friends do seem to have evidence on their side. GfK, apparently one of the world’s leading market research companies, have developed a GfK Trust Index, and yes they found that doctors are one of the most trusted professions, behind postal workers, teachers and the fire service. World Bank managers might like to know that bankers and (top) managers come close to the bottom, just above advertising professionals and politicians.
Given the trust doctors enjoy, the recent brouhaha over allegations of low quality among some of the social science articles published in medical journals must be a trifle embarrassing to the profession. Here’s the tale so far, plus a cautionary note about a recent ‘systematic review’.
In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court today upheld the main provisions of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, including the individual mandate (i.e., everyone must buy health insurance). It represents a major step towards universal coverage for health care in the U.S., something that many countries around the world are striving to achieve.
For those interested in gaining a better understanding of this complex legislation, you can do no better than to start with a graphic novel about the law written by Jonathan Gruber, a professor at MIT and one of the main architects of the Affordable Care Act (and, for that matter, of the Massachusetts health reform that it closely resembles). It’s a great introduction to the policy issues surrounding market failure in health insurance, without having to wade through a dry textbook or World Bank report.
More than health insurance for the poor
In our last post, we showed how illness in India causes financial hardship and leaves Indians—especially poor ones—with limited access to affordable good-quality health care that can actually make them better. In this post, we outline a novel government-sponsored health insurance program in the state of Andhra Pradesh (AP)—a program that has the potential not just to reduce financial impoverishment but also raise quality standards in hospital care.
a) “Actors”, and their rights and responsibilities
Initiated by the then chief minister of AP, the medical doctor YSR Reddy, the Rajiv Aarogyasri scheme started in 2007 and is targeted at the below-poverty line (BPL) population. The scheme focuses on life-saving procedures that aren’t covered elsewhere in India’s patchwork of health programs, for which treatment protocols are available, and for which specialist doctors and equipment are required. Currently 938 tertiary care procedures are covered. The scheme revolves around five key “actors”, one unique to Aarogyasri and all with interesting rights and responsibilities.