Sick of it

  • Belamati Nepali of West Rukum was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and underwent surgery in Lalitpur. Her husband Khadke sold the family livestock to pay for his wife’s chemotherapy. He mortgaged his house to a local lender for Rs500,000, which he will lose if he doesn’t pay it back by October. But the money has run out. He says, "I am worried about losing my home, but I am now even more afraid of losing my wife.”
  • Aman Dhamala’s 23-year-old son was seriously injured in a landslide last year in Kalikot. A local hospital could not treat him, and he borrowed Rs250,000 to hire a helicopter which came seven hours later. His son died in the helicopter before reaching Kathmandu. "If we had a better equipped hospital in Kalikot, my son would be alive today. Now I am left with nothing but a huge debt.”
  • Suman Lamichhane broke his right leg in a fall 12 years ago in Gorkha, but because of improper treatment there, the National Trauma Centre in Kathmandu had to amputate it. Suman does not have a family. He had to sell everything he owned for treatment, but could not save his leg.
  • Punsiram Tharu’s son was diagnosed with retinoblastoma at Kanti Children’s Hospital this month. Treatment would have cost Rs300,000, and there was a 95% chance of recovery. But the Rs100,000 the government provides for cancer treatment was not enough, Punisram does not own any property, and no one back home will lend him money. The daily wage earner cannot afford his son’s treatment.
  • Six-year-old Roshan Tamang was taken home to Kavre by his parents midway through his cancer treatment in February because they could no longer afford his treatment. “I had to sell all my property for my son’s chemotherapy, but we were not sure he would get better, and we ran out of money. It broke my heart to take him back home,” Roshan’s father said. Roshan died at home three months ago.

Read more: In a healthy state, Editorial

Nepalis are losing their lives and homes paying for expensive medical care. Others are living with life-long disabilities because they cannot afford treatment.

Every year, the WHO estimates that 500,000 people across the country are pushed below the poverty line, and another three million face financial burden because of expensive medical care, and lack of insurance. That is over 10% of Nepal’s entire population.

The cities have modern private hospitals which have made it possible for many Nepalis not to have to go abroad anymore for treatment. But these hospitals are out of reach of most Nepalis. The WHO recommends more than 10% of a nation’s total budget to be invested in health. This year’s budget allocates only 6.87%, which is even lower than other developing nations.

Most of that money is allocated for construction and unnecessary equipment, there is not enough to train new doctors and nurses or retain them in rural hospitals.

There was some hope with the introduction of the national health insurance policy, but the benefit amount of Rs100,000 per household is not enough for critical care.

Instead of streamlining a national insurance scheme so healthcare is more equitable, the finance minister announced plans in his budget speech last month to privatise it.

Read also: Taking wealth out of health, Anita Bhetwal

Fix what is broken in Nepal's health system

Decentralised healthcare and a national insurance program can achieve equitable medical treatment for all Nepalis

Ujjwal Thapa, the founding chair of Bibeksheel Sajha Party, died on 1 June last year due to complications from Covid-19.

Thapa’s treatment, which cost Rs2.5 million, was crowdsourced after he was unable to put together enough money to pay mounting hospital bills. His family raised Rs6.8 million for the treatment of a young politician known for his integrity and vision for the country.

Thapa needed financial support despite belonging to an upper middle class family with a house and business in Kathmandu.

Covid-19 exposed the pre-existing failure of Nepal’s public health system and high cost of treatment at private facilities have forced many families into a vicious cycle of poverty, as well as countless preventable and premature deaths.

Nepal’s healthcare mechanism is at odds with the constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights of Nepalis, and needs a complete overhaul. Government hospitals cost less, but treatment is sub-standard and private care is too expensive.

Read also: Dangers of privatising health insurance in Nepal, Gaj B Gurung and Sushil Koirala

Nepalis have had to sell property and livestock to pay hospital bills, and fall prey to loan sharks. Others have had to abandon treatment midway or entirely knowing that doing so would mean certain death.

The government subsidises treatment for diseases including cancer, Alzheimer's and kidney failure, as well as for families of those who were killed or injured during the conflict. However, the amount does not even cover transportation for treatment in most cases. Bureaucratic red tape means not all patients receive the benefits.

Arun Shahi, an oncologist at Patan Hospital says that cancer treatments might take up to five years, and cost as much as Rs20 million: “How much is the Rs100,000 government subsidy going to cover?”

Particularly tragic are the stories of children whose parents have had to discontinue treatment for lack of money. Doctors at Kanti Children’s Hospital say they have seen at least five such cases from Achham, Sindhuli and Sarlahi districts in the last six months.

“It is heart-breaking to be forced to send young children home, and we are very much aware that the lack of treatment will mean they will not live,” says Bishnurath Giri, a paediatric oncologist at Kanti.

Read more: Grassroots democracy promotes good health, Sagar Budhathoki

In Nepal, medicine for chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure cost about Rs1,000 per month. Kidney dialysis, required to be done thrice weekly, costs Rs2,500 per session. Cancer treatment cost a minimum of Rs300,000, while bone marrow transplants at private facilities cost up to Rs3 million. A brain surgery, which is not available at government hospitals, costs around Rs2 million at the Neuro Hospital in Bansbari.

Meanwhile, the overall costs of a liver transplant could be as high as Rs3 million. Sagar Poudel, who sees up to 30 patients with liver disease at the Chitwan Medical College every day, says that at least five of those patients require liver transplants, but cannot afford it.

For families in remote areas, even a fall from a tree or injury in a highway accident can sink them deeper into poverty. Many of Nepal’s migrant workers admit they seek overseas employment to pay debts incurred for medical treatment of family members.

The average cost of treatment for an accident and surgery in private hospitals is Rs200,000. Just an ICU bed in a private institution in Kathmandu costs Rs20,000 per day, while the daily cost for patients needing ventilators is Rs100,000. Critical care at government hospitals is only about Rs15,000 cheaper.

Additionally, the absence of a medical audit for treatment in Nepal, unlike in foreign countries, has led Nepali service providers to charge money arbitrarily by directing patients into unnecessary tests and treatments.

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And since patients do not have technical knowledge of medical treatment, it is difficult for them to decide on the choice of service. "It is up to the patient to decide, but healthcare providers have taken the decision out of their hands," says Poudel, the liver transplant surgeon.

And when families cannot afford treatment fees, hospitals are known to hold new mothers and babies, mentally ill patients, as well as bodies of deceased family members hostage.

The over-saturation of private health institutions in Kathmandu has also led to unhealthy competition between private hospitals which have been known to pay ambulance drivers commissions for bringing patients to them. Tests performed in one hospital are not recognised by another, and a patient needs to take them all over again.

Patients were already bearing the brunt of expensive medicines and over-prescription of unnecessary medications. Big pharma pays commissions to hospitals and doctors for prescribing drugs. Indeed, up to 75% of the total expenditure or medical treatment is spent on pharmaceuticals.

"While there is a big managerial weakness in the government health institutions, the private sector is engaged in unethical profiteering, and ordinary Nepalis are squeezed between those two problems,” explains physician Kiran Raj Pandey, author of Up is the Curve: A Genealogy of Healthcare in the Developing World.

Read more: Is free health care possible in Nepal? S P Kalaunee

According to the National Health Accounts Report 2018, Nepalis spend 80% of their out-of-pocket expenses on private medical treatment. Nepal’s healthcare mechanism is not only causing people to spend a significant portion of their income on treatment, but also increasing indebtedness.

Experts have time and again called for the elimination of out-of-pocket healthcare payments due to continued investment into an unregulated private medical sector.

“The state has let hospitals and clinics charging arbitrary fees off the hook, this needs urgent fixing,” says public health expert Kedar Baral.

The answer is a citizen-centric national health insurance program to reduce the burden of medical costs. Public health expert Sharad Onta says: “Healthcare cannot be a commodity, and patients are not customers."

Meanwhile, Baburam Marasini, former director at the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division says that the treatment cost of 90% of patients will be reduced if health services are decentralised to primary health centres as well as local and provincial hospitals.

Introducing a national health insurance scheme would then also mean sustainability for district hospitals and local primary health care centres.

Read more: This is how to upgrade Nepal’s rural health, Sewa Bhattarai

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