Need to make health facilities more accessible and reliable: Dr Harsh Vardhan

Updated: Jun 20, 2014, 14:10 PM IST

With a doctor at the helm of affairs at the Union Health Ministry, there are hopes that healthcare in India would get much-needed focus and reforms would set in.

To know about the agenda, Zee Business` Amish Devgan spoke to Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan.

Here are the excerpts:

Q 1: As a doctor, and now Health Minister, can you promise `acche din` are here to stay?

A 1: I have practiced medicine as a doctor and as an administrator, in the capacity of the health minister of Delhi. I also have experience administering and monitoring health programs on an international level with the WHO. I assure you I will bring my entire experience and dedication in improving health of the people of the country. You will see a noticeable change in primary health facilities and improved health of the population. This is my prayer, this is my wish and this is my intent. I believe this is also the desire of the government.

Q 2: One can argue that healthcare in India is more affordable than the West, but the cost of medical care today is out of the common man`s reach. Will you reduce the cost of medicines to begin with?

A 2: There are two aspects to the problem. Wherever the government is providing health facilities, for example primary health centres etc. at all these centres medical aid must be made more accessible, more reliable and more affordable. At these centres essential medicines will be made available free of cost. Everyone should have access to health centres like AIIMS for example and not only in few cities like Delhi but all over the country. For treatment of cancer lets say, diseases such as this, easily accessible and effective treatment must be made available across the country. Traditional and alternative lines of treatment like Unani, Ayurveda or Homeopathy must also be made available to patients. These are some of my priorities at this stage. But increasing the health insurance coverage remains an immediate priority for the government. We are working to expand the coverage to include more and more people, because health insurance is only limited at this stage. There is already a special team that is working to come up with solutions. We are already looking at best practices in this sector.

Q 3: Can you assure the people that in coming days the costs of treatment is likely to go down? Healthcare is going to become more affordable? Some private hospitals are solely focused on improving their balance sheets.

A 3: Yes, I believe that there is going to be a reduction in the costs of treatment in coming days. But one can`t ignore the contribution of the private sector in providing world class healthcare. The common man should also have access to these facilities. Its my request to private medical care centres that they join the government in this endeavour. As health minister of Delhi I experienced this first hand. Many programs were conducted where the private sector participated enthusiastically, and this was appreciated not only in India but also abroad.

Q 4: People are saying that a visit to a private hospital also ends up putting your financial health in the ICU?

A 4: There is no doubt that private medical care is expensive, even I would face difficulty if I was to avail of this facility on a regular basis. There is no doubt that this should be made more accessible to the common man, but let me clear, its my request to the private sector to come forward and join the government, because this can only be achieved when everyone works together.

Q 5: But even the middle class cannot afford to avail of these facilities?

A 5: It is true that advancements in medical technology have increased costs of treatment. But this is also the reason why I keep urging the people to live a healthy lifestyle and avoid falling ill in the first place.

Q 6: You are saying prevention is better than the cure?

A 6: Look if everyone takes this pledge, if I take the pledge of staying healthy and do little things regularly, then these small changes can result in a big change in our lives, and we can live healthy lives.

Q 7: But I don`t think anyone wants to deliberately fall ill?

A 7: I am talking about a radical change in our lifestyles. These changes can make a difference in our health. If you are serious about bringing positive change to your health then you don`t have to radically alter you habits, just make small changes. These changes can go a long way, for example if one decides to change then some Yoga, healthy eating habits, taking a morning walk, eating nutritious food for that matter can make a positive difference.

Q 8: This sounds very good, but isn`t this a bit idealistic?

A 8: This is not ideal, but rather normal. If I ask you to not consume tobacco, exercise regularly, eat in moderation, not consume alcohol, then these are not radical changes. Small changes only, but the impact will be radical. See if I have the choice between opening a health centre, or providing 50 playgrounds for children to play, I shall choose the latter. Physical activity itself keeps many ills away. In the accepted knowledge that many ailments arise out of physical inactivity. So the idea is to be more physical in our daily lives.

Q 9: But there is pressure of academics, you can`t ignore it?

A 9: Ofcourse one can`t deny the pressure of academics, and we are not doing so, but even academics can only bear fruit if one attends to one`s health. We are working on formulating a policy to ensure that this done. Healthy lifestyle doesn`t mean a cure to disease, it also means freedom from disease in the first place. This is also similar to the definition of good health accepted by the WHO. Holistic health is the key to a long life...all aspects like mental, physical and spiritual health must be balanced.

Q 10: Look at the state of government health care facilities. Corruption is rampant, there are long queues...all this paints a very depressing picture doesn`t it?

A 10: I don`t agree that one needs to pay bribes to get proper treatment at government hospitals, but let me be clear that we need to improve on the facilities that we have currently. Yes, we are woefully short of the number of doctors, nurses and hospitals that are required given the demands of the population, but we must address these issues promptly. Many come to my office asking for a letter of recommendation so that they can get priority treatment at AIIMS etc, and for this I can`t say no. This is okay. I keep going back to the need for a national movement in this direction, which involves the entire country from a school going child to a graduate, from the clerk a department to the highest ranked officer. A movement which is the need of the hour.

Q 11: Will you see the realization of this dream?

A 11: Of course, I have full faith that what you call a dream will be absolutely realised. When I thought about the Polio eradication program, it was basically four people who drew up the policy that became such a success. Look even back then people would criticise the system saying that it can`t improve, that it won`t deliver, but it did. The very same doctors who were being criticised left their homes and went street to street, village to village in eradicating polio. If we can eradicate polio then this can be replicated to combat Kala Azar, leprosy, khasra. We can limit incidence of TB, of cancer also but all this is possible only if we dare to dream.

Q 12: There is another dream that you are seeing isn`t there, one of AIIMS all over the country in every state. What is the progress?

A 12: I am a practical man, I dream but work on the ground. This is not a new proposal. Even in the previous NDA regime we had already readied the proposal to establish at least 6 AIIMS all over the country. But then a different government was at the centre for 10 years. I am fast tracking these projects. I have already surveyed Bhopal and Patna. By year end at least 6 AIIMS will be up or nearly there. We are readying a proposal to have 10 more AIIMS soon. Patients will not have to flock to New Delhi only.

Q 13: The UPA always claimed that no other government achieved what it did in 10 years in the health sector.

A 13: I am not criticizing what the UPA did or didn`t do. If there was good work that was done then I am sure everyone appreciates it. But yes, different governments have different ideologies. We have some ideas and we are implementing them. I am not going to criticize the previous government.

Q 14: What about a specific program to provide low cost medicines? Its not been successful, will you persist with this scheme?

A 14: As the health minister of Delhi I implemented a similar program, which was appreciated and is renowned as the Delhi Model, I am going to replicate that model in the country.

Q 15: What is the model?

A 15: There are some essential drugs that are used in over 95% treatments, and if these are scientifically procured and distributed then they are more successful. There is a transparent way of doing this, open bids are invited.

Q 16: Will people get cheaper medicines?

A 16: For the same amount of money, you can buy 35% more medicines that can treat 95% of ailments. In the same budget, you can get better health care. But along with this we also must train and motivate doctors in the country to prescribe medicines in a more rational manner.

Q 17: Under NPPA 348 drug manufacturers were supposed to change salts and reduce costs of essential medicines. But this has not happened?

A 17: If there is such a thing occurring, if there is any attempt at taking fleecing the public then the government has an unsparing view on this matter. There are many departments that are involved in this exercise, and we will coordinate with them to ensure that this is not happening. The government is working together in a cohesive manner to benefit the people. Drug manufacturers should also measure their profits in the amount of relief provided to the common man. Those who are not already doing it will be penalized.

Q 18: The UPA had promised universal insurance. Are you going to deliver?

A 18: I am experienced not only as a doctor but also a health administrator. Universal health insurance or something similar was outlined during my tenure as the Delhi`s home minister also. We are working on it. Its not a question of time, of days, or even months rather how best we can deliver it. There is already an expert group that is looking into all the modalities and we will devise a plan soon. It is not right to speculate when we can deliver this, but it won`t be long is also my promise. We are working hard at providing a solution. I can assure you that I am working hard at this, and I can promise to deliver the best I can.

Q 19: There are some foreign companies that are competing with India in drug manufacturing.

A 19: Let me be clear if there are Indian companies that are testing medicines scientifically, are producing medicines at par with global practices then we will encourage them. This is the era of globalisation, and incorporating best practices is a good thing. We can`t have a one policy fit all approach.

Q 20: What does this mean, will you back Indian companies?

A 20: We won`t compromise on any front, but yes if all boxes are checked, then yes.

Q 21: Insurance for all, is there a time line? 3 years, 4 years?

A 21: Not that long, we are already on it. I am trying my best, there is a government expert committee that is looking into it. We can`t provide a time line, but in six months we are sure that we would have made a definite plan. We can talk about timelines then.

Q 22: The news of BJP forming govt in Delhi is taking rounds. AAP is alleging that BJP has resorted to horse trading.

A 22: AAP has lost people`s confidence. AAP did the opposite of what it preached, their politics is based on lies. Their allegations are baseless. It is not in our tradition to engage in horse trade.

Q 23: But Delhi BJP president Prabhat Jha has said that a lot of AAP MLA`s are in touch with BJP. AAP is also alleging an offer made by BJP to AAP MLA`s for Rs 25 crore.

A 23: His statement has been misinterpreted. Our politics is transparent. These claims are rubbish.

Q 24: Are you still a claimant for the post of Delhi CM or you are now set in your new role as country`s health minister?

A 24: I have been a politician for 21 years. I have never served my personal agenda in politics. I have never claimed anything or made any decision for myself. All the decisions have been taken by the party.

Q 25: New names for the post of Delhi CM race are being speculated. Lobbying for some candidates is also being done. Who according to you should be the new CM of Delhi?

A 25: These are party issues. Individual choice don`t matter. The news of lobbying is a rumor spread by media channels. Narendra Modi has taken over responsibility of deciding party`s future. It is not my area to speak.

Q 26: According to you will there be re-elections in Delhi or will BJP form govt?

A 26: I see no other option except re-election.

Q 27: Which party is responsible for power crisis in Delhi?

A 27: For 15 years Shiela Dixit has governed Delhi. Privatization was done during her tenure. This government never paid attention to quality check and maintenance of transmission lines and equipment because they were hand-in-glove with private companies which was proved in CAG reports. Shiela govt is primarily responsible for power failures in Delhi. The next govt, a coalition, was also formed with help of Congress and AAP was only interested in protests rather than planning a strategy for power crisis.

Q 28: Congress also at the time of general elections targeted you instead of current power minister Piyush Goyal. People of Delhi gave you a mandate, isn`t it your responsibility now?

A 28: You can yourself see that we are monitoring the situation. We were ready to take responsibility even when we were not in power because responsibility doesn`t come with power. We have learnt this from Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and Vajpayee ji, that it is our duty to work for public.

Q 29 : Another matter has become a political debate these days, Congress is alleging that BJP is taking revenge by removing existing governors.

A 29: Congress doesn`t have the right to allege. In 2004, governors having an NDA connection were removed without even contacting them. New governors were appointed even before previous governors resigned. This was cruelty on behalf of congress. The tenure of governors are ending, therefore they are resigning.

Q 30: But Shiela Dixit`s tenure is far from getting over. Is Najeeb Jung next to resign as governor?

A 30: I don`t have any information on this. Najeeb Jung is an able administrator. He is doing a good job.

Q 31: What is your message to AAP and Congress?

Q 32: There is no need for me to give a message, people of India have given a message in form of a clear mandate. But I have one message for everyone. Narendra Modi has dreamt of making India a world leader. He wants to take all of us ahead. Everyone should contribute positively to this dream so that we can take our country to new heights.

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