It might have been overshadowed with the more popular political happenings that surrounded it on Thursday. But the official launch of the Universal Health Coverage (UHC) by President Uhuru Kenyatta in Kisumu was one of the events that bear more significance to the nation than what might have been deciphered at the time.
The pilot health plan that is also going on in the three other counties of Isiolo, Machakos and Nyeri is the beginning of a change of fortunes, for the better, for millions of Kenyans whose lives might have been lost to curable ailments for the simple reason of lack of access to medical care. It is a fact that due to the prevailing economic condition of the country, majority of Kenyans cannot afford basic health care whose cost is, by all standards, prohibitive. It follows that if one cannot access the right medication when in need, one is more likely than not to fall to the fatal effects of the ailment.
And as the President noted during the launch, lack of affordable medication does not just kill the sick, it makes their families poorer as well. President Kenyatta observed that the “prohibitive” cost of medical services push over a million Kenyans below the poverty line every year. In a country with over 60 per cent of its population poor, having a condition that sends a million more to poverty every year is catastrophic. If this situation is allowed to continue, we can as well start preparing for a 100 percent poor country in a not so distant future.
On its full implementation, the UHC programme will eliminate the possibility of medical expenses-induced poverty. Among other things, UHC envisages free medical services in public hospitals -- from the village dispensaries to national referral hospitals, including the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret and Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi. It hopes for zero costs for the patient on all services, procedures, drugs, supplies, products and modern health technologies.
Though it may take time for the country to realise the prospects of universal health care, the launch of the pilot scheme in the four counties makes the promise tangible. As it is, residents of the four devolved units are assured of free consultations and diagnosis, minor surgeries, public health services including the distribution of free mosquito nets, malaria control initiatives as well as public sanitation. Also available are free immunisation programmes, health promotion and health education.
The popular Linda Mama programme that has ensured proper and free medical care for pregnant mothers throughout the pregnancy and delivery, is bound to continue albeit under a different name now that it is part of the launched UHC. Other than ensuring safe delivery and lessening mother and child mortality at birth, Linda Mama has also been providing free buckets, syringes and gloves to the mothers.
The launching of UHC comes after, and will ensure continuity of free maternity in public hospitals, all those abolished fees and subsidised services in all parts of the country where UHC is yet to reach.
But as we celebrate the birth of this promising scheme, it is imperative that we stay alive to the challenges that may derail its full implementation. Like the stakeholders in the health sector have pointed out, the issue of trained personnel still stalks the country.
Seth Panyako, the secretary general of the Kenya National Union of Nurses says the country has not hired enough nurses and we are not sure we have trained enough either. Laboratory technologists are still in short supply and so are the midwives. Then there is the issue of persistent strikes by the health workers! These, among other factors, are sure to derail full realisation of the promise of universal access to healthcare and must be addressed as a matter of urgency. They shouldn’t, however, blind us to the beauty this concept and its dawn holds for the country for both the current and future generations.
With the targeted studies envisioned in the four counties of the pilot scheme, the roll-out can only bring better results in medicare. It is reported that in Kisumu, policy makers will be studying the dynamics of communicable diseases and their spread, in Nyeri focus will be on non-communicable diseases while in Isiolo and Machakos trends in mortality rates and impact of traffic accidents, respectively, will be studied. Findings in these areas will be used to set mitigation policies for the whole country going forward.
The search for good and accessible health care can only get better.
Mr Cherambos comments on topical issues. [email protected]