Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman presented India's budget for the fiscal year beginning April 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022 on Monday. The Union minister, while acknowledging the health and economic crisis the country fell into during the past one year, added that the battle against the coronavirus hasn't ended yet. Emphasizing that the Budget proposal of 2021-2022 rests on 6 pillars including that of Health and Wellbeing, Sitharaman proposed more than doubling India’s healthcare and wellbeing spending to 2.2 trillion rupees ($30.1 billion).
A while before the Budget was presented, a Gurugram-based doctor had started a petition addressed to Finance Minister Sitharaman in a bid to increase the health budget to 10% of the GDP.
Dr Sarika Verma, an ENT surgeon based out of Gurugram, has been a medical professional for the past 18 years, treating patients at both private and government hospitals. She now runs a chain of private clinics for the past 11 years. In nearly 2 decades of her profession, Dr Verma has seen the struggles of the poor who, for lack of an insurance cover cannot afford to spend lakhs of rupees on medical bills. Bounced around by government hospitals, most of them end up either suffering from lack of treatment or end up taking out loans, pushing themselves into throes of misery.
Speaking to News18, Dr Verma said, "Government hospitals are often seen lacking in facilities and the private ones end up costing a bomb for all. For those who are safe under an insurance cover, it is okay, but for those millions of poor who do not, getting a basic treatment pushes them back by Rs 50,000 at least, which is a lot considering their economic condition."
Elaborating on her petition that she started in September 2020, she explains the discrepancy observed between the GDP allocation by United States and India. Data shows the former spends 18% of their GDP, which brings it to Rs70,000 per person.
"But for India it comes down to a paltry Rs 500, if you consider the last year's allocation of 1.3-1.5% on health. How can you expect a person's treatment with this amount? It doesn't even begin to cover a doctor's consultation fee," says Dr Verma.
Dr Verma's petition lists several other medical issues that needs prompt redressal. India should try and attain better nursing education, paramedics and primary health care provider training and it should be the same in every nook and neighbourhood across the length and breadth of the country.
Dr Verma wishes the government will also help uplift the conditions and pay of ASHA and Anganwadi workers too. "They need to be paid at least the minimum wages for their profound efforts instead of what they are being given now. They are at the grassroot level, working with a lot of vulnerability."
But this year's Budget has already been announced. So, what's the next step?
It might not be what she had hoped for exactly, but it's a step in the right direction, Dr Verma feels, considering the government has increased its allocation for healthcare. But she still believes there's much more to achieve.
"Only time will tell whether the government will be able to reach out to those who need better healthcare or not with their improved vision."
Sitharaman on Monday, while taking a holistic approach to health, said the government's focus will be on strengthening three areas: Preventive, Curative, and Wellbeing.
She also announced a new centrally sponsored scheme, PM AtmaNirbhar Swasth Bharat Yojana, which will be launched with an outlay of about Rs 64,180 crores over 6 years. This will develop capacities of primary, secondary, and tertiary care Health Systems, strengthen existing national institutions and create new institutions, to cater to the detection and cure of new and emerging diseases.
You can read Dr Sarika Verma's petition here.