New Delhi, May 30: Union health minister Harsh Vardhan has asked his ministry to accelerate steps towards a programme to provide free medicines in government clinics across the country that had been announced by the UPA government two years ago but remained unimplemented.
The minister has asked senior health officials to work out the logistical details for procurement and distribution of free drugs in government clinics in consultation with state governments, the health ministry said today in a press release.
The ministry said Harsh Vardhan has also articulated the need to disseminate standard treatment protocols to ensure that unnecessary and irrational drugs should not be prescribed to patients.
The Planning Commission had estimated that the programme to make available generic medicines free to patients in government clinics would cost about Rs 28,560 crore between 2012 and 2017.
While the UPA government had announced it would introduce the programme in 2012, public health experts tracking the government’s funding on health schemes say the finance ministry had not made any allocations in 2012 and in 2013.
“If this really takes off now, it’ll be an excellent move,” said Selvaraj Sakthivel, a senior health economist at the Public Health Foundation of India, New Delhi, an education and research institution.
“The free drugs programme has the potential to significantly reduce out-of-pocket (personal) expenses that households across India spend on health care,” Sakthivel told The Telegraph.
Several medical studies that have examined health spending patterns in India have suggested that on an average about 70 per cent of the out-of-pocket expenses of households go into paying for medicines.
Under the proposed programme, the Centre will provide 75 per cent of the cost of the medicines, while the states are expected to cover the balance. The plan envisages that 348 generic medicines, off-patent drugs and less expensive than their patented versions, for a range of conditions — from arthritis to infections to cardiovascular diseases, among many others — will be available free in government clinics.
But public health experts say the extent to which the plan will be implemented will become clear only when the new government presents its budget in July.
“We’re hoping to see this reflected in the budget,” Sakthivel said. Given the anticipated costs of the free drugs programme, he said, the annual allocation should be at least Rs 5,000 crore.
Harsh Vardhan, speaking to senior health officials during a review of the national health mission on Thursday, also said he would like to make the mission more participatory through consultations with non-government professionals and health experts with different specialisation.
The minister also announced that he would meet with accredited social health activists (ASHAs) — village-level health workers — in the coming weeks. Over the past decade, the UPA government had created more than 800,000 ASHAs under the national rural health mission. These workers are expected to play a role mainly in tracking maternal and newborn health and referring ill women and children to health centres.
“There are many impediments to their smooth functioning,” Harsh Vardhan said. “I will sit with ASHA representatives and hear from them personally what their feelings are about the national health mission from the ground.”