The National, Tuesday February 25th, 2014
FREE health care is one of the great initiatives that any government can bestow on its people.
Monday’s announcement that Papua New Guineans can expect basic cover in a range of services is tremendous news.
From this year, public hospitals and church-run facilities that receive state grants will provide as part of their standard services and treatments prescription drugs, in-patient care, consultations, ante-natal care, midwifery, ambulance calls, radiology, pathology, ultrasonography, minor surgery and electrocardiography services free of charge.
Additionally treatment for diabetes, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and diseases affecting other major organs like the liver will be covered.
In effect, the policy means any public institutions charging fees for treatment or drugs will be doing so illegally.
Before we clamour for what is rightfully ours and why we have been deprived for so long, let us remember that public health will always be a priority for any government but the quality and effectiveness of that care will always depend on the state’s ability to fund programmes that can cover everyone.
In the modern age expecting a basic level of health care is a perquisite to having a healthy, productive and generally positive populace.
This free health policy, like the free education one, will take time to get right.
Let us not be fooled as there will not be any perfect scenarios, at least in the short term, as the National Health Department looks to implement one of the pillars of Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s second term of office.
The fact remains that personal health still remains the most contentious issue for many Papua New Guineans. A full medical check-up costs between K500 and K1,500 in this country, which means very few people can afford them. People will normally seek medical advice when they fall ill.
That is mostly reactionary rather than preventative and a free health policy will at least take out the anxiety and burden of seeing a medical officer for treatment.
Health secretary Pascoe Kase said the basic health care provided at all state-run hospitals would however not include specialist medical procedures, which would only be partially covered by the state.
Kase said the government had given K20 million last year to 22 hospitals and would give another K20m to cover the costs of the services they provide.
We can only assume K40m is adequate funding to provide health care not just to one demographic or age group but to the seven million men, women and children in the nation.
If this is the amount the government has allocated to fund free basic health care then it will mean every Papua New Guinean gets K5.71 in medical care.
Obviously not every single person will require medical attention throughout the year but it is interesting to note that for such a wide range of services and pharmaceutical supplies to be free that only K40m is considered ample.
One must now assume that this amount is only additional to the annual budgetary allocation Kase and his department is given to run public health.
With the state already struggling to keep some of its hospitals operating at the basic capacity it will be interesting to see if the free health care policy benefit everyone as it should.
Kase still has not explained how for example the dilapidated health centres in places like Bulolo and Baimuru will receive a direct benefit from the services and treatments enumerated. Free basic health care is not just a problem of supply but a problem of demand.
Hopefully, getting free health care does not mean the villager in Bulolo has to travel to Lae just to benefit from this policy.