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Monday, January 21, 2019

The rise of government-funded health insurance in India

by Harleen Kaur, Ila Patnaik, Shubho Roy and Ajay Shah.

The National Health Protection Scheme (NHPS) announced in the Budget 2018-19, targets providing affordable health care to 100 million poor households in India. It is arguably the world's largest health insurance scheme and an indicator of transformation of the role of government from being a health care provider, to that of a health care financier. Before independence, India focussed more on public health through interventions like water supply, sanitation and vaccination than providing health care through hospitals. The reorganisation after independence was a result of policy changes that merged public health and health care responsibilities within the same officers of the government, the doctors. A remarkable development in the field of health policy in India is the rise of government funded health insurance programs.

These programs feature purchases of health care services from private health care providers health insurance from health insurance companies. In a recent paper titled, The rise of government-funded health insurance in India, we discuss the history of health policy in India in three phases; pre-independence British India, independent India until the 2000s and independent India after 2000s, to understand the factors contributing to the shift in the health system of the country.

We offer fresh insights into these developments by placing them in a historical perspective. The roots of Indian health policy lay in British India, which laid the foundations of public health. This was done after the Royal Commission of 1859 was set up to investigate the health status of the army in India. The Royal Commission studied not just the army, but the civilian population as well. By and large, their emphasis was on public health and not on health care. The findings of Royal Commission can be summarised in two quotations:


  1. The need for public health rather than health care
  2. "Native hospitals are almost altogether wanting in means of personal cleanliness or bathing, in drainage or water-supply, in everything in short, except medicine."
  3. The need for interventions outside of soldiers
  4. "The health of the English army is indissolubly associated with the health of the population of the country which it occupies"

The legislative and institutional apparatus that was established in British India involved a prime focus upon public health, and a major role for sub-national governments (states, cities). When the Constitution of India was drafted, it largely reiterated this design.


The changes after independence came from two sources; the shift of power to the union government, and adoption of the Bhore Committee report. While the Constitution envisioned a federal arrangement, in practice, power shifted to the union government after independence. The union government designed programs, and financed state governments to implement these programs. There was a consequent atrophying of policy thinking and execution at the state and local government level. This had an impact on many aspects of public policy in India. In the present context, there was an adverse impact upon public health, as a large part of the field of public health consists of local public goods.

The Bhore committee report shifted focus from public health to health care, and gave a leadership role to doctors in health policy. It was adopted by independent India and became the gospel for health system thinking in India. There is an interesting tension in Bhore Committee report, between its recognition of the need for public health as a distinct problem from health care:

 The health services may broadly be divided into (i) those which may collectively be termed public health activities and (ii) those which are concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of disease in general.

versus its emphasis on health care:

Preventive and curative health work must be dovetailed into each other if the maximum results are to be obtained and it seems desirable, therefore, that our scheme should provide for combining the two functions in the same doctor in the primary units. (Emphasis added).


This document was accepted into the thinking of the Planning Commission, and translated into schemes and outlays in the following decades. There was a large scale attempt at building a public sector health care system.

For many decades, this induced the main paradigm of Indian health policy: an emphasis on health care at the expense of public health, weaknesses in local government, a big role for the public sector in the production of health care, and domination of doctors in policy thinking.

This approach worked badly. By the early 1980s, some policy thinkers began questioning this framework. By the 1990s, a great deal of evidence and literature had accumulated, that criticised this approach. Weaknesses in public health were giving a high disease burden. Alongside this, the public sector health care system was not effective. An unregulated, private sector health care system sprang up, to respond to the requirements of the citizenry.

While the mainstream health policy establishment proposed intensification of effort within this paradigm, by spending more money on it, politicians became increasingly concerned that the paradigm was delivering poor results. On the ground, it was apparent that private sector health care was the dominant feature of Indian health care.

This led to the ideas of public funding for the purchase of private health care, implemented through health insurance companies. This approach was attractive as it appeared to more directly translate fiscal outlays into tangible benefits for citizens. This policy innovation, which began in Maharashtra in 1997, spread rapidly across the country. By early 2018, there were 48 Government Funded Health Insurance Schemes (GFHISs).

We argue that there are four areas of concern with this approach. The first problem is the lack of emphasis on public health. The most effective public policy interventions in health are the public goods of public health, which were introduced in the British period. It is an incorrect strategy to have a high disease burden in the first place, and then build a curative layer on top of it. It is better to clean the air than to produce health care services for sick residents.

The second concern is about the conduct of the largely unregulated private health care sector, which yields poor outcomes for citizens. This calls for establishment of a regulatory strategy for the health care industry.

The third concern is about the weaknesses of consumer protection and micro-prudential regulation of health insurance companies, which yields poor outcomes for citizens. This calls for reforms of the regulation of health insurance companies.

Finally, there are important fiscal risks in this journey. Once voters get used to entitlements, they are politically difficult to withdraw. Population-scale health care is expensive, particularly in the context of weaknesses in public health which are giving a high disease burden. This is analogous to the field of pensions, where decisions about pension reforms need to be made only after estimating the implicit pension debt over 75-year horizons. There is a need for greater fiscal analysis, and caution, in the construction of government programs in health which make promises to households about future health care expenditures.


The authors are researchers at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy.

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