The Indian government will pay for healthcare for around 500 million of its poorest citizens, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi declaring that the country can only ever reach its potential with a healthy population.
During a speech to mark the country’s independence day on Wednesday, Modi said, “It is essential to ensure that we free the poor of India from the clutches of poverty due to which they cannot afford healthcare,” The Times of India reported.
The National Health Protection Mission—also known as “Modicare”—will give impoverished families health insurance coverage of up to $7,100 every year. This may not seem a lot by American standards, but in a country where annual per capita income is just over $1,900, it will make a massive difference to those who cannot afford private treatment.
Public hospitals in India offer free, but less sophisticated, care. The system is strained to the point of collapse, with hospitals struggling to secure enough beds and staff to care for the sick. The lack of access for rural communities—where 66 percent of Indians still live—forces people to travel many hours to reach urban facilities if they want treatment. This means the private medical sector cares for the majority of India’s patients, and charges them accordingly.
When the project was announced in February, then-Finance Minister Arun Jaitley declared it the “world’s biggest government-funded health care program.” According to the mission’s chief executive officer, Indu Bhushan, “This is going to be a game changer.”
Medical costs are one the primary causes of poverty in India. Around 63 million Indians drop into poverty each year because of healthcare bills, with 70 percent of all charges are paid directly by patients.
As India looks to become an economic superpower rivalling the U.S. and China, crippling healthcare costs and preventable illnesses and deaths are millstones around the country’s neck. Average life expectancy in India is 69 years, significantly below China at 76 years and the U.S. at 79 years. The mortality rate for children under 5 years is 43 per 100,000, and in 2015 1.2 million children died of preventable diseases.
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