Thursday, 30 May, 2024
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Other options than NHI for quality UHC

One of the most damaging aspects of our public discourse on National Health Insurance (NHI) is the mistaken notion that the only two options are NHI and the status quo, observes Spotlight editor Marcus Low.

Often implicitly, sometimes explicitly, defenders of NHI suggest that any argument against NHI is one for maintaining the current system. Since the current system doesn’t work very well for most people, this line of argument gets some purchase, even though it is based on a false premise.

In his book, Which country has the world’s best health care?, oncologist and bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel outlines the key features of healthcare systems in 11 countries. Two things standing out are that health systems differ substantially between countries, and that most are the relatively messy products of complex histories and political and other compromises.

This latter point about the path-dependency of healthcare systems is an important point, to which we will return.

Many varieties

South Africa’s proposed NHI system is sometimes bracketed with systems in countries like Canada, the United Kingdom and Thailand. At times this is fair, at times it skims over important differences.

For example, NHI will be a single-payer system – meaning the fund will be responsible for almost all purchasing of healthcare services in the country. In some respects, Canada has a similar system, except that rather than one system for the whole country, in effect, it has 13 single-payer systems for each of the provinces and territories.

Even Thailand, at times referred to as an example of NHI, technically has three funds rather than one, although it resembles South Africa’s NHI plans in several other respects.

In principle, a large single-payer should be able to negotiate better deals than several smaller payers, but on the other hand, having Canada-style provincial funds would be more closely aligned with South Africa’s current governance arrangements and in some provinces, like the Western Cape, chances are people would have more trust in a fund run by the province than in one run nationally.

Another thing that quickly becomes apparent is that a simplistic dichotomy between NHI and private healthcare is a false one. Countries like The Netherlands and Germany have achieved excellent health outcomes with systems that are neither NHI-style systems nor examples of the private sector running riot.

Though the details are significantly more complicated than this, essentially, both having many strictly regulated medical schemes (called sickness funds in Germany) with scheme/fund membership being compulsory (with some exceptions).

The German system is progressive in that people with higher incomes contribute more than people with lower incomes – an important difference from South Africa’s medical schemes.

Funds in The Netherlands are also not primarily funded directly, as with our medical schemes, but receive funding from a central fund via a risk adjustment process. Both the German and Dutch systems have significant social solidarity built-in in the way it institutionalises the cross-subsidising of the poor by the wealthy.

In South Africa, such a system could, for example, be implemented by dramatically tightening up the regulation of medical schemes, putting in place a progressive mechanism for cross-subsidisation between schemes, making scheme membership compulsory for those who can afford it, and, over time, using tax revenue to pay for scheme membership for the unemployed (although this last element, like NHI, does come with a big question mark on affordability).

Those with long enough memories might remember that a system roughly along such lines was on the cards in South Africa around the turn of the century.

Getting to there from here

One striking thing about NHI in South Africa is that for all the column inches, submissions to Parliament, and oral hearings countrywide and in Parliament, hardly anyone has shifted their positions in the past decade, and there has been very little serious consideration of alternative paths to universal healthcare.

One reason is the sense that the design choices behind the NHI Bill were essentially decided on by a relatively small group in the National Health Department and the ANC around 10 or 15 years ago.

What followed since then has often felt like an attempt at co-opting rather than meaningful engagement. This was particularly apparent in how some members of the Portfolio Committee on Health continuously pushed people on whether they are for or against NHI, rather than engaging with the substance of people’s submissions.

Though the boxes for public engagement were ticked, the reality was often a parody of what such engagement is meant to be.

We could have gone a different route.

It would have been entirely feasible to have a process for NHI akin to the more meaningful set of engagements we had for the Competition Commission’s Health Market Inquiry into the private healthcare sector. In that case, people could make submissions, be heard by the panel, and crucially, there was never the sense that the outcome was preordained.

Such a process may, in some respects, have given government officials and MPs a few more headaches, but it would also have built trust and understanding of the technical issues, and for major reforms like NHI, trust and public understanding is half the battle.

Which brings us back to the idea of path dependency.

Emanuel’s book offers no easy answer to the question of which country has the best healthcare. They all have strengths and weaknesses and your choice will, to some extent, be guided by what you value.

But what the book also does expertly is to turn into a problem the very idea that a healthcare system is something you can pick from a menu, with no regard for how you get from here to there.

Whatever your position on NHI, what is indisputable is that it represents a major disruption from the path we have been on until now. Getting from our current two-tiered system with several medical schemes to a Dutch or German-style system would also have been a major reform, but less so than with NHI.

The severity of the change in direction to NHI partly explains why it is so contentious.
Such dramatic changes in direction are risky at the best of times, much more so in the context of our country’s deeply dysfunctional politics and rampant corruption.

Given the long timelines, it is not inevitable that NHI will result in the destruction of much healthcare capacity in South Africa, but given this context, the risk is certainly real.

On the other hand, major reforms of this nature are always going to be difficult, as they famously were when the National Health Service was introduced in the UK. There will always be some pressure groups who you won’t be able to accommodate and who you simply have to stand up to.

Personally, I am convinced that several of the key architects of NHI had good intentions, and their arguments have merit. But unfortunately, the fact that they have won out is mostly a result of them having convinced a few key players in the ANC, and not of them having convinced healthcare workers and the public more generally.

Either way, largely for party-political reasons, it seems inevitable South Africa will, over time, transition to a system very different from what we have now. Reasonable people may well differ over whether the precise path painted in the current version of the NHI Bill is the right one – only time will tell.

What there should be no doubt about right now, however, is that the path the ANC has chosen for us is just one of many possible paths.


Spotlight article – Opinion: There are paths to quality universal healthcare besides NHI (Creative Commons Licence)


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Doctors’ petition urges NCOP to reject NHI Bill


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