What does Universal Health Coverage actually mean?

Flickr / hdptcarThe aims of Universal Health Coverage (UHC), as defined by the World Health Organization, are: “to provide all people with access to needed health services (including prevention, promotion, treatment and rehabilitation) of sufficient quality to be effective; and ensure that the use of these services does not expose the user to financial hardship.”  Yet as I studied cancer care and control policies in Andhra Pradesh, India, I realized that I did not fully grasp what this definition of UHC actually entails. I particularly took issue with the phrase “to provide all people with access.” When we say that a country or a state has achieved universal coverage – or in the case of the Rajiv Aarogyasri Scheme (RAS), 87% coverage of the state’s population – what does that mean in practice? At first, I assumed that the expansive reach of RAS ensured that 87% of the population could access free tertiary care. But my conversations with state government officials and health care providers suggested otherwise.

As I delved deeper into the state’s policies, I discovered that the widely lauded statistic actually signifies that 87% of the state’s population is simply eligible for RAS, by way of possessing a white ration card. And I came to understand that there is a huge difference between eligibility and accessibility. The focus of my last two posts was the fundamental barriers to care, both on the supply and demand sides. But these posts merely highlighted few of the multitude challenges faced by patients in seeking health services. It is therefore highly unlikely that all those who are technically eligible to benefit from RAS when sick actually do.

Flickr / DFAT photo libraryPerhaps the most fundamental barrier to care, I realized, was one that is seldom discussed – the linkage between services. Even if the state removes the financial barriers to each service along the cancer care and control continuum, from primary prevention to survivorship and palliation, patients may remain unable to access comprehensive care if referral networks are inadequate. In fact, one oncologist I spoke with admitted that he discontinued screening efforts for cervical cancer because he had no way of reaching the patient after testing was complete. Despite obtaining Pap smear results, he could not find the patients for further diagnostics, counseling, and treatment.

Certainly, other government-funded programs attempt to mitigate these challenges and improve access. In 2010, for example, the Government of India approved the National Programme for Prevention and Control of Cancer, Diabetes, Cardiovascular Diseases & Stroke (NPCDCS). The broad objectives of the NPCDCS are to: prevent NCDs through behavioral changes, promote early diagnosis of NCDs, train doctors and other health staff to monitor and treat NCDs, and establish and strengthen palliative and rehabilitative care facilities. Notably, the program strengthens existing public health infrastructure established through the National Rural Health Mission to reach even those populations residing in remote areas. The central government aims to scale up the NPCDCS, which has thus far been implemented in only 100 districts, to cover the whole country by 2017.

Flickr / DFID - UK Department for International DevelopmentBut whether or not even this program will facilitate UHC depends on how it links to existing state-funded insurance schemes. From my conversations, it became clear that at the moment, the NCPCDS and RAS seem entirely disconnected.

Because cancer is a chronic disease that requires preventative, screening, diagnostic, treatment, palliative, and rehabilitative services, investigation of cancer control policies provides some insight into the extent to which states have achieved UHC in practice. RAS has certainly improved the poor’s access to inpatient care, but we must be critical of such health financing mechanisms in order to improve their efficiency. The point of this series of posts is that pouring money solely into tertiary care may not be sufficient to improve financial protection, let alone increase quality and quantity of life, reduce the disease burden, and ultimately achieve UHC. We must aim to design programs that truly minimize supply side barriers to all health services and innovate to address such demand side barriers as cultural stigmas. Only then can we truly realize universal health coverage as defined by access rather than merely eligibility.

Pooja Yerramilli completed her B.A. at Yale University and MSc. at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the London School of Economics. She has been involved in cancer advocacy efforts for several years, and was an active participant in policy discussions regarding smoking behaviors and insurance coverage of smoking cessation treatments at Yale. She recently worked with the Indian Institute of Public Health and is currently collaborating with the Harvard Global Equity Initiative to research the financing of cancer care and control in low and middle income countries.

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