At the United Nations general assembly in September, all countries, including South Africa, reaffirmed their commitment to achieving universal health coverage by 2030. This is achieved when everybody accesses the health services they need without suffering financial hardship.
As governments outlined their universal health coverage plans, it was noticeable that some had made much faster progress than others, with some middle-income countries outperforming wealthier nations. For example, whereas Thailand, Ecuador and Georgia (with national incomes similar to South Africa) are covering their entire populations, in the United States, 30-million people still lack health insurance and expensive health bills are the biggest cause of personal bankruptcy.
The key factor in financing universal health coverage is, therefore, not so much the level of financing but rather how the health sector is financed. You cannot cover everyone through private financing (including insurance) because the poor will be left behind. Instead, the state must step in to force wealthy and healthy members of society to subsidise services for the sick and the poor.
Switching to a predominantly publicly financed health system is, therefore, a prerequisite for achieving universal health coverage.
The National Health Insurance (NHI) Bill, recently presented to Parliament, is President Cyril Ramaphosa’s strategy to make this essential transition. In essence, it proposes creating a health-financing system in which people pay contributions (mostly through taxes) according to their ability to pay and then receive health services according to their health needs.
Surprisingly, these reforms have been dubbed “controversial” by some commentators in the South African media, even though this is the standard route to universal health coverage as exhibited by countries across Europe, Asia, Australasia, Canada and much of Latin America.
In criticising the NHI other stakeholders (often with a vested interest in preserving the status quo) have said that the government’s universal health coverage strategy is unaffordable because it will require higher levels of public financing for health.
Evidence from across the world shows that this is patently false. South Africa already spends more than 8% of its national income on its health sector, which is very high for its income level. Turkey, for example (a good health performer and slightly richer than South Africa), spends 4.3% of its GDP and Thailand (a global universal health coverage leader) spends only 3.7%. Thailand shows what can be accomplished, because it launched its celebrated universal health coverage reforms in 2002 when its GDP per capita was only $1 900 — less than a third of South Africa’s today.
In fact, Thailand’s prime minister famously ignored advice from the World Bank that it could not afford publicly financed, universal health coverage in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis when it extended universal, tax-financed healthcare to the entire population. When these reforms proved a great success, a subsequent president of the World Bank, Dr Jim Kim, congratulated the Thai government for ignoring its previous advice.
Similarly the United Kingdom, Japan and Norway all launched successful universal health coverage reforms at times of great economic difficulty at the end of World War II. These should be salutary lessons for those saying that South Africa can’t afford the NHI. If anything, because universal health reforms generate economic growth (with returns 10 times the public investment), now is exactly the time to launch the NHI.
So there is enough overall funding in the South African health sector to take a giant step towards universal health coverage. The problem is that the current system is grossly inefficient and inequitable because more than half of these funds are spent through private insurance schemes that cover only 16% of the population — and often don’t cover even this population effectively.
Were the bulk of these resources to be channelled through an efficient public financing system, evidence from around the world shows that the health sector would achieve better health outcomes, at lower cost. Health and income inequalities would fall, too.
It’s true that in the long term, the government will have to increase public financing through reducing unfair subsidies to private health insurance and increasing taxes. But what the defenders of the current system don’t acknowledge is that, at the same time, private voluntary financing will fall, rapidly. Most families will no longer feel the need to purchase expensive private insurance when they benefit from the public system. It’s this fact that is generating so much opposition to the NHI from the private insurance lobby.
This is the situation with the National Health Service in the UK and health systems across Europe, where only a small minority choose to purchase additional private insurance. Among major economies, only the United States continues to exhibit high levels of private, voluntary financing.
As a consequence, it now spends an eye-watering 18% of its GDP on health and has some of the worst health indicators in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, including rising levels of maternal mortality. If South Africa doesn’t socialise health financing this is where its health system will end up — a long way from universal health coverage.
What countries celebrating their universal health coverage successes at the UN have shown is that it is cheaper to publicly finance health than leave it to the free market. This is because governments are more efficient and fairer purchasers of health services than individuals and employers. As Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former director general of the World Health Organisation, said in New York: “If there is one lesson the world has learnt, it is that you can only reach UHC [universal health coverage] through public financing.”
This is a step South Africa must take — it can’t afford not to.
Robert Yates is the head of the Centre on Global Health Security, Chatham House, London