The news: Millions of Indians are about to get a lot healthier. Dr. Harsh Vardhan, the country's new health minister, is rolling out a new health care initiative that will provide Indians free access to 50 essential generic medicines.
"Fifty basic essential drugs address 75% of the health care needs of the majority, and we plan to make these available free to everyone, from birth to death," Vardhan told the Hindustan Times.
How this will work: India's public hospitals and dispensaries will offer free medicine to treat pain, infections, hypertension, diabetes and many other diseases. Vardhan explained that, "The program" which will be rolled out in phases, "will focus on efficient procurement, quality control and rational use – 50% medicines are wasted or overused, leading to complications and drug-resistance."
Vardhan continued, "A standard list of medicines will ensure that for the same amount of money, 35% more medicines of superior quality can be procured to meet the health care needs of the majority."
The move is part of Vardhan's plan to radically update India's current health care system with free medicine, more public health institutions, improved medical facilities and more integrated health practices — all of which are listed in his new manifesto.
This isn't an entirely new idea in India though. In 2011, India quietly adopted a plan to give out free generic drugs to millions of Indians. The country allocated $5.4 billion to help Indian doctors prescribe generic-only brands of medicine.
Could this happen in America? India is a country that has the lowest health expenditures in the world with over 400 million people living in poverty. They spend only 1% of their GDP on health care. Compare that to the U.S. dumping in 17 to 18% of its GDP.
Image Credit: PBS
Breaking down the terribly ranked health care system, the U.S. spends a whopping $8,508 per person on medical care. And part of the health care system problems are directly related to astronomical prescription drug prices. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that "since October 2007 the cost of brand-name medicines has soared, with prices doubling for dozens of established drugs that target everything from multiple sclerosis to cancer, blood pressure, and even erectile dysfunction." In 2012, Americans spent a total of $263 billion on prescription meds.
Image Credit: Economist
India has high death rates from amenable diseases, low immunization rates for infants and, worst of all, experts say that out-of-pocket spending on health is an integral factor in pushing people below the poverty line. It seems obvious then that complimentary medicine will surely boost the country's health care coverage.
And while we can look longingly at the idea of free medicines, it's unlikely that the U.S. would adopt a similar program in the near future. Besides the influences of major drug companies on policy agendas, many of these drugs are developed by American companies that spend millions of dollar developing them in the first place. Of course, while government subsidies factor into such discussions, the fact of the matter is, as it stands now, the U.S. is miles away from even considering giving away free medicine.
It's too bad though, because if India, an impoverished country of 1.2 billion people, is willing to take cuts in their budget to benefit the overall welfare of the country, there may be hope for the rest of us.