New Delhi: The ministry of health and family welfare said on Monday it would introduce a universal health insurance programme as part of its proposed Universal Health Assurance Mission (UHAM). The insurance will be free for those below the poverty line and the premium will be kept low for others.

“At present. health insurance touches about 25% of the population. We will spread the population of insured rapidly, which will result in a sharp fall in premium rates and (lead to) many consumer benefits," health minister Harsh Vardhan said.

An autonomous body, UHAM agency, will be formed to ensure above-board operations and genuine protection of the insured, Vardhan said. The minister said he had set up an expert panel to prepare a report on UHAM which is under consideration.

According to Vardhan, through this scheme, every person will be able to access tertiary healthcare services. The government will provide 50 essential drugs, a bouquet of diagnostic services and 30 AYUSH (ayurveda, yoga and naturopathy, unani, siddha and homoeopathy) drugs at all government hospitals and health centres.

“In the last three months the ministry has finalized UHAM programme and discussed it with the prime minister’s office (PMO). On 2 October, a meeting of all health secretaries from all states will be convened in which we will discuss how to implement this plan across India," Vardhan added.

The minister spoke at a press conference to flag his ministry’s achievements and plans in the first 100 days of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.

“It’s well-intentioned but there are critical challenges in this plan. With these insurance schemes, people will go to private sector which is poorly regulated and there have been instances when patients have been overcharged," said Leena Menghaney, a lawyer who works in healthcare sector. “How will the government regulate this sector? What will be the ceiling to the insurance cover?"

At the press conference, Vardhan also outlined plans to eliminate diseases like measles and rubella by 2018; kala azar, filarial and maternal and neonatal tetanus by 2015; and leprosy by 2017. The government will also launch one-day campaigns against diseases like hypertension, diabetes, obesity, cancer and heart diseases to spread awareness.

“The budget for health at around 1% of GDP (gross domestic product) is not adequate and it’s important to increase this budget. But we will utilize every rupee in the best possible way," Vardhan said.

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