Tuesday, 25 June, 2024
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Current version of NHI Bill risks continuation of status quo

The NHI Bill in its current form lacks adequate provisions to safeguard against medicines access and other key elements and, if allowed to be passed, threatens to maintain the unequal two-tier health system in SA.

Yanga Nokhepheyi, Marlise Richter and Fatima Hassan, writing for Spotlight, say the struggle to tackle structural health barriers exposed post-Covid continues to not only beat Covid and future pandemics, but also to help ensure implementation of universal health coverage (UHC) systems.

South Africa, too, has committed to attaining UHC by 2030 as part of a set of promises made on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. South Africa’s main strategy to attain UHC is to implement a National Health Insurance (NHI) system.

Unfortunately, progress has been historically slow, but in the build-up to the 2024 elections, the ANC MPs are rushing the law reform process, despite an acknowledgement, even from the Health Ministry, that progress and timelines are hampered by the socio and mainly economic impacts of the pandemic.

This includes a fiscus crisis with additional pandemic-related debt, and, says Dr Nicholas Crisp, deputy director-general in the Health Department responsible for NHI, “the NHI could take decades to be implemented at full scale”.

It will require a Herculean task to unify our apartheid-era two-tiered healthcare system, with the right skills, funding base and transparency in decision-making around health policy and medicine selection. The pandemic has highlighted why these elements are critical for healthcare for everyone.

We provide a short overview of our research below.

Law reform

Last year, the Portfolio Committee on Health in Parliament deliberated on the NHI Bill, but there were no significant changes made to it. However, it needs major revision. Many serious concerns and recommendations from parliamentary submissions by multiple stakeholders have gone unaddressed.

The Health Justice Initiative (HJI) has focused on medicine procurement provisions in the Bill and in 2022 raised at least 17 questions that require greater attention before the law is passed. Neglecting to tackle the public’s submissions is not surprising, seeing that ANC MPs serving on the committee were resolute in having the National Assembly adopt the Bill before the ANC conference in December 2022.

But time ran out before the adoption of the Bill by Parliament, and the process will seemingly resume this month.

Stakeholder submissions to Parliament on the Bill (there were 64 000 written submissions after Parliament’s call for comment in 2019) and various commentators have warned about the “looming disaster’ posed by  the Bill in its current form, but they are often divided on the main reasons. A tiny minority resists the principle of unified health systems and universal health care for all (meaning, also for the poor).

Many more groups agree NHI is an ethical necessity but are concerned about South Africa’s disintegrating public health system, energy crisis, high levels of state corruption involving health product procurement, and the in/ability of the Department of Health to actually implement NHI in its current proposed form.

Other groups have rightfully pointed out concerns over conferring too much power on the Health Minister, inadequate financing models, the feasibility of NHI in SA post-Covid, and the exclusion of specific categories of people from NHI.

Risks to medicine access

Regrettably, the provisions in the Bill on Medicine Selection, Pricing and Procurement are ambiguous at best, and as the HJI pointed out in 2022, the entire shift of our medicine selection, procurement, and reimbursement system to “NHI reimbursement” has not been adequately thought through, potentially posing a great risk for the future of medicine selection and access for everyone.

This requires immediate attention at the highest levels of the executive and the legislature too – and probably needs a multi-department and stakeholder technical group to urgently determine the exact trajectory of this planned process.

The World Health Organisation has emphasised that UHC programmes will only be successful if there is “affordable access to safe, effective and quality medicines and health products”. In addition, the pandemic has taught us that timely and fairly priced access to essential diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines is key to resolving any public health emergency and improving health outcomes.

We cannot safeguard public health without access to medicines – procured fairly, delivered on time, and based on expert and transparent decision-making and approval.

The cost of medicine, as elsewhere in the world where there are national health systems, remains a key concern. The Health Minister, last November in the National Assembly, said funds for the NHI would be collected through a combination of taxes, including the reallocation of medical scheme credits paid to medical schemes, provincial health budgets to the NHI Funds, and payroll tax.

The financial feasibility of implementing the NHI is still unclear and a huge risk to the fiscus in a post-Covid economy dealing with a recession, load shedding, and high unemployment rates.

In late 2022, HJI argued that the Bill does not adequately consider the complexities of medicines access and that our medicines system could be severely jeopardised if poorly drafted sections in the current Bill become law. We said government should establish a task team to urgently determine the exact trajectory of this planned process.

The Health Department’s recent response to submissions and its own recommendations on amendments to the Bill sadly does not realise the gravity of the threat to the future of medicine selection and access.

In HJI’s 2022 analysis of the Bill, we raised 17 key questions we believe must be addressed by lawmakers in the next version of the Bill and before NHI comes into effect, which include:

The need for safeguards

Drawing on our work on medicine access during the HIV and Covid pandemic, we appreciate there are powerful vested interests in the multi-trillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry – this is why there is a need for legal safeguards, sound legislation, and independent and transparent institutions to ensure access to affordable medicines for all of us living here.

The pandemic showed that a lack of transparency, autonomy and information around expert advice can bedevil open government decision-making. Secret procurement contracts for essential vaccines could become the norm under NHI as they did in Covid, something we are fighting in our courts to open up, later this year.

Figuring out a sound system for a unified medicine access system under NHI is a formidable undertaking requiring a multi-disciplinary task team with experts from various fields, experience, and technical know-how. It is not easy to simply merge two parallel medicine procurement and selection systems. The risk is that the status quo could continue – where the rich and insured access the best medicines at a higher price.

We believe the principles underpinning NHI for our highly regressive, unequal two-tiered healthcare system are too important for our collective health, well-being, and our Constitutional democracy to have lacklustre legal provisions and worrying gaps on the essential issues of medicine procurement and selection.

As the Bill currently stands, it will strengthen the private healthcare sector’s stranglehold on us and our fiscus. It will leave us at the mercy of advisory committees that bear no duty to be transparent in deciding which medicines you and I will be able to access under NHI.

We can and need to do better.

* Nokhepheyi and Richter are researchers and Hassan the director of the Health Justice Initiative.

National-Health-Insurance-Series_Issue-Paper-1_FINAL-14_11_2022

 

Spotlight article – OPINION: NHI Bill must still clear many hurdles to ensure adequate medicine access (Creative Commons Licence)

 

See more from MedicalBrief archives:

 

NHI not being built on any one country’s model – Crisp

 

SA needs R200bn to fix hospitals before NHI roll-out, says Phaahla

 

Government dodges issue of NHI funding model – DA

 

NHI flaws: Lack of transparency, scant guidelines, says Angelique Coetzee

 

 

 

 

 

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