Denied health cover

THE government must probe the reasons and factors behind the denial of free medical treatment to over 80pc of almost 105,000 patients, who visited district headquarters hospitals across Punjab between July 1 and July 25, under the Sehat Sahulat Programme. Those who could not have free treatment included pregnant women, as well as people requiring heart and other surgeries, dialysis and intensive care. A new report puts the opportunity cost of the refusal of treatment under the universal insurance programme for such a large number of patients visiting DHQ hospitals at Rs9.2bn on an annualised basis. The loss incurred over the 25 days was estimated at Rs645m. It is difficult to say at this stage if the `denial` of the facility was wilful or whether the patients were turned away by these hospitals due to lack of equipment, space, medicines, doctors and other facilities. By ascertaining the reasons, the data will help the authorities plan the health budget in a better way to provide the missing facilities at DHQ hospitals to fill gaps where they exist.

Unless the real factors are investigated, most people will end up assuming that patients are being discouraged deliberately as the caretaker set-up has on a few occasions indicated its plans to fully or partially roll back the scheme because of political reasons. It is already reported to have excluded from the facility households earning above Rs65,000 a month, and patients preferring private hospitals for treatment are now required to pay 30pc of the cost of their hospitalisation and procedures upfront. Private hospitals were included in the programme owing to large gaps in the public healthcare infrastructure.

Indeed, there have been reports of hospitals in the private sector misusing the facility and charging very high rates. But it should be the responsibility of the insurer to keep a check on them as is done all over the world. Punishing the people is no solution.

Proper healthcare is the universal right of all individuals and communities. No one should have to suffer financial hardship to access medical treatment when they need it. It is welldocumented that healthcare expenditures in Pakistan are responsible for aggravating economic shock in poor to middleincome families. The Sehat Sahulat initiative is just one step towards progress in increasing public access to better healthcare and reducing financial hardship caused by its costs.

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