In time for the 2014 general elections, the UPA government will deliver on a promise made by PM Manmohan Singh last year: Quality medicines provided free of cost through public hospitals and dispensaries.
The new mechanism is intended to ensure that no public health centre will be able to refuse medicines sought, and the poor will get them free.
The health ministry has notified setting up of a Central agency for “efficient” procurement and distribution of health sector goods including 348 essential medicines listed by the government to reduce people’s out-of-pocket healthcare burden because of high cost of medicines. These include cancer drugs which can cost patients around one lakh rupees a year.
A World Health Organisation study estimates that 70% of Indians spend out-of-pocket on medicines and healthcare services in comparison to 30-40% in other Asian countries like Sri Lanka, and of this spending, most of the money goes for buying medicines.
Setting up of the agency on the lines of one in Tamil Nadu is part of the government intention to provide universal health care at affordable prices to all in the coming years.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi promised a free medicine scheme at a public rally in Rajasthan last week.
“Efficient, timely and reliable supply of drugs to health facilities is the essential component of the universal health care,” Union Health Secretary Keshav Desiraju told Hindustan Times. He said that senior appointments in the centralised procurement agency had been made to kick-start the government’s major health reform programme and added that he was hopeful of starting procurement of essential drugs soon.
Health ministry officials said the new system will ensure that patients get all medicines in the hospital itself either free for the poor and at very low cost for others. “If the hospital does not have the medicine they will have to provide the same within a short span of time…asking a patient to buy medicine from outside will not be allowed at any cost,” a health ministry functionary said.
As per the ministry’s order, the agency will be responsible for procuring health sector goods including medicines and equipment in a “transparent” and “cost effective manner” and its distribution to the states through an Information Technology enabled supply chain infrastructure.
The public health utilities will order medicines through a new IT enabled service and the agency will provide the medicines within a couple of days through its 50 warehouses to be set up across India.
“The main objective of the agency is to ensure uninterrupted supply of health sector goods which will then maintain the flow to the government health facilities such as district hospitals, primary health centres and community health centres,” the order issued by Desiraju said.
A national sample survey office in 2012 found that of all expenditures a person spends most on healthcare in rural India. In urban areas, where per capita income is almost three times of rural India, health was the fifth highest reason for spending.