Sham of health insurance for poor

There's nothing much to cheer about in govt health insurance schemes for the masses but private hospitals continue to rake in the moolah
Wednesday, July 24, 2013

In 2007, the state government of Andhra Pradesh launched an insurance scheme that was designed to protect patients from the ‘catastrophic’ impact of out of pocket expenses incurred on hospital care. Termed as the ‘Rajiv Arogyasri’ scheme, it soon became a flagship programme of the Andhra Pradesh government and came to be held out as an example of the state government’s commitment to providing affordable health care to the poor.

The scheme was a major election plank of the ruling Congress party in the 2009 elections, and many commentators later suggested that Arogyasri’s success was a major factor in the sweeping mandate that the party received. Arogyasri’s apparent utility was quickly picked up by the Central government and a nationwide scheme modeled on Arogyasri was launched in 2009 – called the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY). In the UPA-II’s rather bare cupboard of programmes for social welfare, the RSBY scheme has been held out as a major achievement. Similar state level schemes have also been launched or are in the process of being launched in Kerala, Tamil Nadu (originally called the Kalaignar Scheme, since renamed by the new state government), Delhi (Apka Swasthya Bima Yojana), Karnataka and Maharashtra (Rajiv Gandhi Jeevandayee Arogya Yojana).

The roll out of these schemes have been impressive – by the end of 2010 an estimated 247 million people (25 % of the country’s population) were covered by one or more of these schemes. Coverage has, since, expanded even further. This is a huge jump from the pre-2007 situation when the two social insurance schemes in existence were the Employees State Insurance Scheme (ESIS) launched in 1952 and the Central Government Health Scheme (CGHS) launched in 1954. The former covers employees in the organised sector (about 7% of the country’s work force) while the latter covers employees working for the government. Both are funded through co-payments made by employees and employer.

By the end of 2010 an estimated 25 % of the country’s population was covered by these schemes. This is a huge jump from the pre-2007 situation when the two social insurance schemes in existence were the Employees State Insurance Scheme (ESIS) launched in 1952 and the Central Government Health Scheme (CGHS) launched in 1954.

As plans are now being readied to launch the present government’s vision of a reformed health system, through the lens of the 12th Five Year Plan, insurance schemes such as the RSBY are poised to get even larger attention and support. It thus becomes necessary to critically assess the underlying elements of these schemes. Particularly so as it is being claimed that these initiatives will protect people from the impact of catastrophic expenses on medical care, which pushes an estimated 6 crore people below the poverty line every year.

Content of the health insurance schemes

Let's step back to understand the content of these schemes and their underpinning logic. All these schemes are meant for hospital care only. All of them have a list of procedures which are covered – which means that reimbursements are limited to this list. A fundamental innovation that has been introduced in these insurance schemes is that patients are provided a ‘choice’ of accredited institutions where they can receive treatment. These institutions can be in the public or the private sector. Like any insurance package these schemes have a ceiling for reimbursement.

This ceiling varies – it is set at Rs.30,000 per family of five in the RSBY schemes, while some state schemes such as 'Arogyasri' reimburse up to Rs.1,50,000 or more. While the RSBY scheme started off by being restricted to BPL families, many state schemes now cover non-BPL families as well. All these schemes are publicly funded i.e. the annual premiums for beneficiary families are paid by the government. In the case of the RSBY, the cost of premiums is shared by the Centre (75%) and state (25%). The state schemes are funded by the state budgets.

A fair question to ask is, given the outline of the insurance schemes like RSBY, shouldn’t such schemes be supported? After all they are paid for entirely by the government and they reimburse expenses incurred – often very steep – to access care that involves hospitalisation. The schemes have the added advantage of being cashless, i.e. payments are made directly to the provider and the patients do not have to pay themselves.

To arrive at a reasoned answer to this question we need to examine this scheme in the context of the entire health system. There are two fundamental pillars of insurance schemes of this kind. First, they operate on the logic of what is called ‘split between financing and provisioning’. What this means is that there is a clear separation between the financing of services provided, and the facilities where these services are provided.

Thus, in the case of all these schemes, while the financing is through public resources (central or state government funds) the treatment can be provided by any accredited facility. In practice, a large majority of accredited institutions are in the private sector. The second pillar of all these insurance schemes is that beneficiaries are insured against a set of ailments that require hospitalisation (unlike the old ESIS and CGHS schemes which are supposed to cover all forms of care). So beneficiaries are not guaranteed care for all ailments – in other words it is not a promise to provide comprehensive health care, but to provide care for a pre-defined package of procedures.

A large majority of accredited institutions are in the private sector and beneficiaries are insured against a set of ailments that require hospitalisation unlike the old ESIS and CGHS schemes which are supposed to cover all forms of care

These basic tenets of the insurance schemes have to be understood in the context of the country’s health system. The public system is under resourced and access to it is difficult for a very large number of patients. Over 70% of health care costs are borne by patients themselves as they are forced to look for care in the private sector. The private sector is almost entirely unregulated and is a mix that ranges from primarily unqualified practitioners in rural areas, charitable institutions, small private nursing homes and hospitals, and large chains of corporate hospitals.

Over the past decade there has been a huge expansion in the last category – of chains of corporate hospitals. These have expanded to fill in the void left by an inadequate public system and operate almost entirely in towns and cities. The public system still caters to almost 40-45% of hospitalised patients, while over 80% of out-patient care is accessed through the private sector. Thus, a majority of expenses incurred by patients is in out-patient care, but this is not covered by the insurance schemes.

Impact on the health system

Let us now examine the effect that the insurance schemes have on the existing health system. Supporters of insurance argue that it shouldn’t matter where people get medical care, as long as they are assured good care. They also argue that ‘competition’ between different providers will improve the quality of care. Unfortunately evidence available suggests something totally different.

A recent analysis of the Arogyasri scheme in the Economic and Political Weekly  provides very interesting data. The analysis notes that “The Aarogyasri Trust has empanelled 491 hospitals in the state, of which nearly 80% are in the private sector. Although the Aarogyasri scheme is meant for poor villagers, there is not even one private hospital in the rural areas, while the distribution of empanelled government hospitals in rural and urban areas is almost even.”

The Aarogyasri Trust has empanelled 491 hospitals in Andhra, of which nearly 80% are in the private sector. Although the Aarogyasri scheme is meant for poor villagers, there is not even one private hospital in the rural areas, while the distribution of empanelled government hospitals in rural and urban areas is almost even

Competition and false choice

Unfortunately the choice provided by such a model is a false choice. For people to exercise their choice, information is crucial. In this case, medical care patients, especially poor and vulnerable patients, have little or no information. Patients (now called consumers!) are ideal candidates for being enticed by the private sector, especially the well resourced corporate hospital chains. They are enticed by fraudulent claims hidden in the garb of technical jargon. In the past few months there have been several stories in the media regarding the sharp rise in hysterectomies (operations involving removal of the uterus) since the introduction of the RSBY scheme.

In Chhattisgarh, the director of health services, under public pressure, appointed a fact-finding team and suspended doctors involved in 22 cases, where it could be proved that the operations for hysterectomy were conducted without medical reasons. Dainik Bhaskar reported that just one private hospital (Gupta Hospital in Dhamtari) conducted 604 hysterectomies in 900 days. In comparison, the government-run Ambedkar Hospital in Raipur conducted just seven such operations in the same period. Other media reports indicated that in Bihar an estimated 16,000 hysterectomies, most of them deemed unnecessary, have been conducted.

Everybody in the know acknowledges that these reports are just the tip of the iceberg. Unethical practices have become the cornerstone of the RSBY scheme in many parts of the country – leading to unnecessary investigations, medication and surgeries that only help the profit hungry providers. The EPW analysis reports how ‘Arogyamitras’ are appointed by private hospitals to scout around for patients who can be enticed to get operated upon in private hospitals.

The private hospitals also cherry pick those cases which provide the highest returns and refer others to government hospitals. Government facilities are not structured to compete in the ‘market’ for health care, and gain little even if they are empanelled. This is thus the kind of choice that the poor and vulnerable are provided – a choice based on false motivations and enticements by profit hungry private hospitals.

Unethical practices have become the cornerstone of the RSBY scheme in many parts of the country – leading to unnecessary investigations, medication and surgeries that only help the profit hungry private health providers.

Limited package and skewed priorities

We now turn to the other pillar of the insurance model – only a pre-approved package of procedures are covered, and only applicable if they require hospitalisation. This leaves out not just important conditions that require hospitalisation, but the entire range of ailments that are treated through out-patient care. There is clear evidence that the major burden of diseases lie outside the packages covered by the insurance schemes. These include almost all infectious diseases that are treated in out-patient settings – including those that require prolonged treatment such as tuberculosis.

Most chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension and heart diseases also get left out of the package. A cancer patient who needs to take expensive treatment for months would not be included unless hospitalised. Rough calculations indicate that the packages cover 2-3% of the actual burden of disease that exists in a community.

Such skewed priorities end up by distorting the existing health system. In Andhra Pradesh, the Arogyasri scheme draws 25% of the state’s health budget while covering for 2% of the burden of disease. Insurance schemes thus draw away resources from the already resource-starved public health system and fattens the coffers of corporate hospitals. In other words public money is being squandered to strengthen the already dominant corporate private health sector.

The same resources, if used to strengthen the public health system, would leave the nation with assets that are under public control and can be used for public good. A study done by the Public Health Resource Network (PHRN) and the Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health (CSMCH), JNU, in Chhattisgarh showed that the revenues of government. institutions empanelled under RSBY have not increased, while at the same time previously available maintenance funds have been withdrawn.

In Andhra Pradesh, the Arogyasri scheme draws 25% of the state’s health budget while covering for 2% of the burden of disease. Insurance schemes thus draw away resources from the already resource-starved public health system and fattens the coffers of corporate hospitals.

Perhaps the worst harm that such insurance schemes cause is to distort the entire structure of the health system. Good health systems are like pyramids – the largest numbers can be treated at the primary level where people live and work, some of these need to be referred to a higher level of care (secondary level like community health centres), and a few would need specialised care in specialty hospitals (the tertiary level). An insurance system that sits on top of the health system overturns the pyramid and starves the primary care facilities. In 2009–10, tertiary care accounted for a little over 20% of the total expenditure. However, if this were added to the expenditure on the insurance schemes, tertiary care would amount for 37% of the total expenditure.

As noted earlier, the current insurance schemes cover for secondary and tertiary level health care for in-patients – largely provided in private facilities. The High Level Expert Group — set up by the Planning Commission as a preparation for the 12th Five Year Plan — had said that use of independent agencies in the private sector and insurance companies under schemes such as the RSBY “fragments the nature of care being provided, and over time, leads to high healthcare cost inflation and lower levels of wellness ... since there is virtually no focus on primary level curative, preventive, and promotive services and on long-term wellness outcomes, these traditional insurance schemes often lead to inferior health outcomes and high healthcare cost inflation.”

It is no wonder that in Andhra Pradesh, due to the Aarogyasri scheme, the proportion of funds allocated for tertiary services increased from 16% to 39%, whereas proportion of funds allocated for primary care reduced from 69% to 46%. This fragmentation of health care is also associated with ‘cherry- picking’, i.e. illnesses which bring more revenue are selectively preferred by the provider. Further, in both the RSBY and the Arogyashri schemes,, there are prescribed clinical protocols or standard treatment guidelines. In their absence, profit motives continue to guide clinical practice, leading to unnecessary interventions, wastage of resources and poorer health outcomes.

There are other major deficits in the structure of the insurance schemes. Enrolment is patchy and the claims of being cashless and portable are not universally true. The PHRN-CSMCH study in Chhattisgarh shows that enrolment among entitled beneficiaries continues to be low (30 to 50 %) and no enrolment has been done in remote and inaccessible villages. It also showed that claims could take 6 months to 2 years to be settled in some cases.

Conclusion

The health insurance model was introduced to protect people from the catastrophic impact of health care expenditure, especially among the poor and the vulnerable. While such benefits would have accrued to a small number of beneficiaries genuinely requiring hospital care, by and large the schemes are inimical to the development and sustenance of a robust public health system. The Ministry of Labour, which administers the RSBY scheme, would like to promote the scheme as pro-worker and pro-poor. This is a gross travesty of the actual situation. The only guarantor of secure access to quality health care is a well resourced and accountable public health system.

The working of the insurance schemes should be comprehensively inquired into, especially the very serious charges against private hospitals that they are attempting to ‘milk the scheme' by resorting to a range of unethical practices. The working people of this country deserve much better, and trade unions and peoples' organisations need to be involved in a thorough scrutiny of the RSBY and other like schemes. Attention also needs to be directed at the gross neglect of the Employees State Insurance Scheme (ESIS). Though a large infrastructure has been created under the scheme, it is low on resources and poorly managed. As a result its benefits are grossly underutilised. Wage earners beyond the Rs 15,000 limit do not have access to any social protection measures for health care. The poor coverage and utilisation of the ESIS forces a majority of workers to pay for health care.

This content was provided by Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (People's Health Movement).

Comments

Healthcare is a public utility- and should not be insurance dependant. It should be funded through taxes though---

The author of the article misses the point of such insurance schemes and RSBY in particular. The main and primary objective was to prevent families going broke due to increased costs of healthcare. In that vein it makes complete sense to limit this to BPL and to ailments requiring hospitalizations. The idea was RSBY not to be all encompassing but to complement the existing health structure. Here the author fails to put RSBY in context with NRHM and other Govt initiatives in health. That public hospitals haven't benefitted from the scheme is misleading; where competitive, public hospitals have improved their infrastructure due to RSBY- case in point are hospitals in Kerela.

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