As dusk falls in Benaras Ram Ashish Rajbhar, a poor laborer awaits his fate on the pavement outside Benaras Hindu University along with his 12-year-old son Karan, caught in the merciless grip of cancer. This ground is shared with scores of other Indians who have a similar story to tell, of the challenges Indian healthcare system is facing today.
The misery of Karan and his father has been relentless ever since the boy was diagnosed with cancer a year ago, needing the excruciating chemotherapy once a month.
The crisis that lurks behind this plight is unbelievable. Because most of the public hospitals have a shortage of beds, patients are forced to hang on the pavement for follow up doctor’s visit, then take a four-hour train ride back home, only to be back in a few days.
But the torment doesn’t end here. While the government hospitals provide free care, patients must bear the expense for drugs which is staggering in case of a fatal disease like cancer. Rajbhar a laborer by profession who earns a meager Rs 7000 per month has spent a whopping Rs 1,70,000 on his son’s cancer treatment till now, crushing him under debt.
Such stories are too common in India where inadequate public health funding and chronic neglect is preventing the underprivileged to come out of shackles of poverty, leaving the middle class high and dry, squeezing off their entire savings.
The consequences of India’s inconspicuous healthcare sector seems far reaching. While the wealthy patients check into posh health chain hospitals like Apollo, Max India, and Fortis Healthcare, the poor are reduced to cash cows with bare minimum facilities forced to pay for their diagnostic tests and medicines.
But not all is glum in Modi land. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ambitious plans to handle the health care crisis. He plans to roll out an impressive healthcare scheme for India’s 500 million population living in 100 million households with a massive insurance coverage cap of Rs 5 lakhs.
Labeled as “Modicare”, a healthcare scheme to be launched later this year will provide “cashless” treatment for beneficiaries with fixed rates for treating various diseases.
Promoted as the world’s largest government-funded health care program, this scheme will be instrumental in arresting India’s rising threat of non-communicable diseases like Diabetes, Cancer and Heart disease.
“This is something the country needed,” says Nilaya Varma, head of KMPG India’s healthcare practice. “You can’t consider yourself an emerging or developed country when millions go into poverty because of health incidents and the government can’t provide for it.”
Despite rising growth for decades, India still limps far behind in health care compared to its third world counterparts Brazil, China and Thailand.
Due to this hurdle, India’s health demographics such as maternal and infant mortality are poorer than many other countries at similar, or lower levels, of development.
But Modi is a smart statesman indeed. He is seeking public support to secure health care in hospitals, not just for a society pink of health but also to reap rich electoral dividends in the upcoming general elections.
While the details of the pilot Medicare scheme is still at a nascent stage, the initial estimates of the scheme have been put up at $1.7 billion by the government for the first two years.
Under this project, the government has on paper a well-designed plan to be implemented targeting millions of people for whom health care is a taboo.
According to Dr. Vinod Paul from Niti Ayog, “We are making secondary and tertiary hospitalization accessible to the people of India through the private and public sector, without them having to pay for it, which they have never thought possible. Right now, people don’t even go for treatment because they cannot go.”
At least 63 million vulnerable Indians are thrown into medical emergencies and run out of funds to sail across the crisis.
For most of the Indians lack of appropriate primary health care may culminate into chronic illnesses later embarking on a huge medical expense.
Hindi heartlands are the ones to bear the axe of inadequate medical facilities. Patients travel long distances to reach dilapidated government hospitals or wind up in tiny, unregulated private “nursing homes”.
Health insurance also plays a major role in medical costs, but also worth mentioning is the loophole in the insurance schemes which need to brief the beneficiaries on their coverage options to claim maximum benefits.
As the Indian government prepares to unveil its national insurance plan, some international companies seek investment opportunity. “It suddenly provides a fillip to investments in healthcare, especially in small towns,” said Nilaya Varma, head of KMPG India’s healthcare practice. “We are already seeing many instances of foreign companies looking at India.” In recent weeks, Fortis Healthcare, which has about 30 hospitals in India, has been the object of a lively takeover battle, courted by Malaysia’s IHH Healthcare Berhad, China’s Fosun International and Radiant Life Care, a company backed by US-based private equity investor KKR.
Health care is the backbone of a nation’s progress. With Modi’s Modicare in place one can expect a huge surge in healthcare infrastructure facilities from the grass root level to the current fragile middle class bearing the brunt of medical emergencies.