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Growth pill for health

New Delhi, Feb. 28: Union health minister Sushma Swaraj was all smiles as she sat through the budget speech this afternoon, with Jaswant Singh announcing an attractive package for the health sector.

On the one hand, the finance minister gave a call to promote India as a “global health destination” by listing sops for financial institutions that would invest in hospitals. On the other, he announced a community-based universal health insurance system for the people.

According to the budget, financial institutions will get the benefit of income-tax exemption as long as they provide long-term capital to private hospitals with 100 beds or more. This, Singh hopes, will encourage private hospitals to establish new institutions or expand existing medical facilities.

Private hospitals welcomed the announcement, saying India had the potential to turn into an attractive health destination, but that had not been tapped.

“We have world class hospitals and many areas of expertise — cardiac, neurosurgery, neurology, radiation, cancer, spinal surgery, cataract operation, orthopaedic joint replacement. And the cost of all this treatment here is much cheaper,” said Dr Y. Mehrotra, managing director of Apollo Hospitals.

People from Africa and the Gulf countries now go to the UK and the US for medical treatment. “We can divert this traffic to India,” said Mehrotra, adding that people from Saarc countries come to India but the richer crowd goes to Thailand.

“Our branches in Hyderabad and Chennai are drawing people from Tanzania, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nigeria,” he said. “We are already talking to the National Health Service so that they can send people of Indian origin to us. Usually they have to wait for months to get appointments.”

Kerala has become a hub for foreign tourists seeking ayurvedic treatment with private clinics offering different kinds of treatment. The Union health ministry has zeroed in on ayurveda as a sector that should be marketed in and outside India.

Recognising the need to frequently upgrade and replace medical equipment, the budget has increased the rate of depreciation from 25 to 40 per cent for life saving equipment.

“We welcome this as well as the announcement to reduce customs duty on specified life saving equipment from 25 per cent to 5 per cent,” said Mehrotra.

The health insurance scheme will have a premium equivalent to Re 1 a day for an individual, Rs 1.50 a day for a family of five and Rs 2 a day for a family of seven.

This will entitle them to reimbursement of medical expenses up to Rs 30,000 for hospitalisation, a cover of Rs 25,000 for death due to accident and compensation due to loss of earning at the rate of Rs 50 per day up to a maximum of 15 days.

For families below the poverty line, the government will contribute RS 100 to their annual premium per year. In the first phase of the insurance, 50 lakh BPL families will be covered.

While Mehrotra welcomed the scheme, Dr Meera Siva of Voluntary Health Association sounded a trifle sceptic. “On paper it looks good. But even for this insurance to be effective, you need to have a public health system in place,” said Siva.

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