NEW DELHI • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi yesterday launched the world's biggest healthcare programme that aims to provide free health services to half a billion poor people and boost Mr Modi's chances in national elections early next year.
The scheme, which the government dubs "Modicare", will give 100 million families - or about 500 million poor people - 500,000 rupees (S$9,460) in health cover each year for free treatment of serious ailments.
The measures are Mr Modi's latest attempt to reform a public health system that faces a shortage of hospitals and doctors. The government has also, in recent years, capped prices of critical drugs and medical devices, and increased healthcare funding.
For primary care - basic services usually provided by general practitioners or nurses - the government plans to open 150,000 "health and wellness" centres, staffed by nurses, traditional medicine healers and other health workers, by 2020. But critics say the scheme has been launched in a hurry for political gain and lacks adequate funds to support it.
India spends only about 1 per cent of its gross domestic product on public health, which is among the world's lowest.
The Indian Health Ministry estimates that such funding leads to "catastrophic" expenses that push 7 per cent of the population into poverty each year.
Speaking in Ranchi - the capital of the eastern state of Jharkhand - after launching the nationwide plan, Mr Modi said: "This is the world's biggest healthcare scheme, benefiting more than the combined population of the United States, Canada and Mexico."
No separate registration would be required for the scheme and the people could check online whether they were eligible, Mr Modi added.
Mr Vinod K. Paul, a senior official at the government think-tank Niti Aayog, last week said the benefits would be available at hundreds of approved private hospitals as well. "India's health system is never going to be the same again. It's a turning point," he said.
Mr Paul added that the final budget is difficult to pin down because nothing like this has been attempted before. The government has allocated US$4.8 billion (S$6.6 billion) for now, but the Treasury has committed to providing more on request, he said.
Private hospitals and pharmaceutical companies expect the plan to give a boost to their businesses. The scheme has been called a "game changer" by the chairman of India's Apollo Hospitals Enterprise, Mr Prathap Reddy.
The plan will be initially rolled out in 27 states, where the federal government will bear 60 per cent of the costs and 40 per cent would be borne by state governments.
REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST