The Right to Health or the Right to stay Unhealthy?

After the Right to Work, the Right to Food and the Right to Education were introduced by the earlier govt, they were duly criticized by a section of the polity as encouraging govt spending at a time of a burgeoning fiscal deficit. The new government – which consists of many of those critics – now thinks that the time has come for a Right to Health. The argument is that given the poor state of public healthcare infrastructure in this country, what are the poor and the disenfranchised to do?

 Some people argue that the government should deliver healthcare directly to the poor. Others favor cash transfers. Just to be sure this piece assumes that the role of the government is primarily limited to financing healthcare which is not envisaged in the govt’s policy document. It is difficult to say which approach seems the most favorable in an area with this magnitude of social impact.

Published literature suggests that contrary to popular sentiment, conditional cash transfers are necessary but not sufficient for improving health. Instead, good government-funded health care is essential, as are schemes which address social determinants of health.

India’s move to adopt cash transfer through schemes such as the Janini Swasthya Yojana (JSY) attracted polarised debate despite the scheme reportedly having shown success by reducing infant and maternal mortality rates.

A study published in The Lancet, found that the opposition is on two counts. First is that cash transfer requires precise identification of the needy. As with anything that has cash and govt together in it, the percent of women receiving payments ranged from as low as 7% to as high as 42%. This may leave a substantial number of poor out of the benefits.

Second, the inability of some Indian states to fully participate in JSY may be due to disparities in public health infrastructure between regions in India. Where will people invest the cash they receive if there are no facilities? The fungibility of money and low health awareness in the masses adds to the complexity.

Although in 2005 India implemented the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) with the goal of increasing public spending on health from under 1% to 3% of GDP, Indian healthcare is still largely private.  An increase in public spending to finance healthcare is – to quote Arun Shourie – more said than done.

Therefore, should govt even attempt to throw more good money after bad? Is tax payer money best spent improving the supply of public healthcare itself? Is that even something we can expect? Or are markets better placed to provide health care and services?

If the Prime Minister is held to his pre-electoral promise of ‘minimum govt, maximum governance’, it would mean that the govt takes radical steps to deregulate medical education, produce medicines and insure people. This can only happen through large-scale privatization of the industry as the govt changes track from providing healthcare to only governing its provision.

It must also mean eliminating all subsidies to the sick or unhealthy as subsidies act as incentives to its beneficiaries and therefore creates more of whatever is being subsidized. If subsidies to the sick promote carelessness, indigence, and dependency, can its elimination strengthen the will to live healthy lives and to work for a living?

As a recent paper on the economics of healthcare states, if people are determined to live unhealthy lives, then there is no system that can fix the underlying problem. At the end of the day, health is largely a matter of personal responsibility.

The health sector is characterized by information asymmetry where doctors know more than patients, and the industry knows more than regulator. Asymmetry creates an imbalance of power and therefore compromises on honesty and morality. If the market decides not to be honest, no govt intervention can prevent, or even deter it. Focusing the State’s energy, power and resources to plug this loop can probably be the most impactful intervention to improve India’s pathetic health sector.

Subsidies to the poor through another Rights bill could only incentivize unhealthy behavior in a section of society that doesn’t need it and hardly impact the section that desperately needs it. The Rights to Work, Food and Education have shown it to be true in the past but in true Indian style, no lesson seems to have been learned.

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