Colombia: Introducing universal health care
A radical reform of Colombia’s health care system is under way as the government begins implementing its plans to bring equality and affordability to health insurance schemes.
The programme, which was launched on July 1, aims to bridge the socio-economic divide by replacing the previous, two-pronged system under which poorer, vulnerable patients received a limited range of treatments with a new, unified Obligatory Health Plan (POS).
However, while the principals of the policy have been widely praised, questions are being asked about how high-cost treatments will be funded and whether the current health care infrastructure will be able to cope with an expected rise in patient numbers.
Traditionally, Colombians have obtained health insurance through either contributory or subsidised schemes that are arranged by primary health insurance providers, known as Health Service Providers (EPS), of their choice.
Affiliates of the contributory scheme were typically employers and employees on reasonable salaries who would be required to give a percentage of their earnings to the EPS in return for guaranteed cover of treatment and medication listed in their plan.
Under the subsidised plan, aimed at poorer, lower-income, and vulnerable Colombians, the range of treatment made available to customers would be partially or fully subsidised, but also restricted and less technologically advanced. The new, unified POS entitles both EPS contributors and subsidy recipients to the same range of treatment options at more affordable prices.
While most of Colombia’s lawmakers and citizens view the introduction of high-quality health care for all Colombians as a key step forward in addressing inequality, they also recognise that the policy is a costly one.
Critics have raised concerns about the expense and anticipated rise in patient numbers that the new system will produce. Some are also pointing out that almost 200 new technologies and a number of key measures to treat high-cost illnesses have already been added to Colombia’s universal POS this year.
Treatment for cancer and diabetes, advanced technology for detecting breast and cervical cancer, together with glucose monitoring kits for home use, were introduced in January and are expected to increase costs by around COP1bn (US$563,000).
While Colombia’s health care system is ranked as the best in Latin America and 22nd in the world, according to the World Health Organisation’s World Health Report, many argue that the cost of providing universal treatment will overwhelm health care providers and could lead to the collapse of the system.
EPS are already heavily indebted to health care providers such as hospitals and clinics. According to recent reports, EPS owed COP76bn (US$42.8m) to the hospitals of Barranquilla and El Atlántico prior to the implementation of the universal POS.
Some observers have also pointed out that the amount of government funding EPS receive to cover the treatment costs of customers using the subsidised scheme has failed to match the payments providers are making for customers under contributory policies.
In an attempt to address some of these concerns, President Juan Manuel Santos recently announced a transfer of COP450bn (US$253.5m) to the nation’s hospitals and clinics. The government has also guaranteed additional funding for hospitals and clinics of US$67m a month for the next 10 years to cover the costs of subsidised patients.
“Going forward all Colombians, without exception, regardless of what scheme they belong to, regardless of their age, have the right to the same treatments, the same procedures, and the same medications,” he said, when launching the POS.
It will be up to government leaders and the health care sector to procure the funding that ensures the initiative moves from being a laudable idea to reality.