India launches world’s biggest universal healthcare experiment

Ambitious plan hailed by medical profession but critics claim it is an unworkable election gimmick

(Image credit: Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty Images)

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has launched the world’s biggest universal healthcare experiment which will grant half a billion people the right to free health insurance overnight.

As of Sunday, roughly 500 million people living below the poverty line will no longer have to pay a single rupee for private hospital treatments that until now would have pushed such families into crippling debt.

Speaking at the official rollout in Ranchi, capital of the eastern state of Jharkhand, Modi claimed that a government scheme at “such a grand scale is not being carried out anywhere in the world” and, crucially, “will not have any distinguished plans on the basis of sect or caste”.

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The measures are Modi’s latest attempt to reform a public health system that faces a shortage of hospitals and doctors, “but critics say the scheme has been launched in a hurry for political gain and lacks adequate funds to support it” reports Reuters.

Senior doctors have voiced concerns that the scheme, dubbed “Modicare” by the Indian media, could undermine the very backbone of the country’s existing healthcare system and collapse within a year if poorly implemented.

“They fear it has been rushed through as a grand populist gesture before a general election due in spring 2019” says The Independent.

The government estimates more than 60% of the average family’s spending goes on medicines and healthcare, however, India currently spends only around 1% of its GDP on public health, among the world’s lowest, compared to a global average of 6%.

The Sydney Morning Herald says “nobody seems to be sure whether [the new scheme] will work or how much it will cost” but Vinod K. Paul, a paediatrician turned government official and the scheme's creator, said that most of the plan represents uncharted territory for the Indian government and that Modi had essentially signed a blank cheque to make it work.

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