Despite Their Economic Strides, China and India Lag on Health Care

Adequate health care, providing security for a nation’s workforce, is among the key attributes of economic development. “India and China have adopted insurance as a tool to provide health-care access and mitigate catastrophic expenditures,” explain Zeena Johar and Xue Ying Hwang, adding that each nation has adopted an independent route towards achieving universal health coverage. “Despite good intentions, both nations are struggling with the complexities of deploying insurance.” India has 20 percent health insurance penetration; China has 95 percent, though reimbursement rates cover about half the costs, leading to incentives for the ill to delay care. The writers conclude that two countries cannot reach their full economic potential without stronger commitment on comprehensive and preventive care from providers and insurance providers. – YaleGlobal

Despite Their Economic Strides, China and India Lag on Health Care

World’s two most populous nations must remedy gaps in health care to realize their full economic potential
Zeena Johar and Xue Ying Hwang
Thursday, December 17, 2015

Health after wealth: Crowded health care center in China, top; Indian women line up to get a health insurance card

NEW HAVEN: China and India, often cited as two rising economic powerhouses, are less than fully equipped in terms of health care, a key attribute of national economic development, according to Amartya Sen. Emergence of the United States, Europe, Japan and Korea as developed economic powerhouses validates Sen’s argument. China and India, representing one out of three people on the planet, must step up efforts to remedy the gaps in health care to realize their economic potential.

India and China have adopted insurance as a tool to provide health-care access and mitigate catastrophic expenditures. India has 20 percent penetration of insurance while China has managed over 95 percent penetration. Each nation has adopted an independent route towards achieving universal health coverage. Despite good intentions, both nations are struggling with the complexities of deploying insurance. China struggles with issues of limited health-insurance benefits and high out-of-pocket expenditure. India on the other hand struggles with variability across a myriad of insurance schemes and limited engagement of the private sector.

The United Nations reiterated its global commitment towards ensuring universal access to health care at the Sustainable Development Summit 2015. World leaders adopted a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change by 2030. Like the Millennium Development Goals, SDGs rigorously focus on global priorities such as maternal health, preventable deaths in newborns, and communicable diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria – and renewing focus on non-communicable diseases. One ambitious goal is to achieve universal health coverage, including financial risk protection and access to quality essential health-care services for all.

For India, achieving universal health coverage is also a national priority. Penetration remains low,  with 5 percent coverage by private insurance. Two significant sources of health-insurance coverage in India are sponsorship by employers or the government at the federal or state level.

Formal employment in India is available to 20 percent of the Indian workforce. Two significant employer-sponsored health-care insurance schemes in India, according to the World Bank, are the Employees' State Insurance Corporation launched in 1948, providing access to more than 55 million beneficiaries, and the Central Government Health Scheme launched in 1954, providing access to over 3 million beneficiaries.

A pivotal moment in federally sponsored health insurance in India was the launch of Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana , or RSBY, to families living below the poverty line. RSBY provides access to hospitalization for more than 100 million beneficiaries through a personalized smart card across a wide network of private-sector providers. India has many other state-sponsored health-care insurance schemes that target the population living below poverty line. Government-sponsored insurance in India stands out for proactive engagement of the private sector.

With India’s abysmally low penetration of insurance, the health-care sector continues to thrive on unregulated out-of-pocket spending by customers seeking medical care. For a patient in India, there is an inherent bias to seek care in private facilities because of perceived higher quality and benefits. These private facilities, having complete control over pricing their services, have little incentive to implement cost-effective strategies. One expected benefit as health insurance penetration rises in India is the ability of insurance payers to better negotiate prices for procedures and services with providers.

Unlike India, China’s main obstacle to achieving universal coverage is not insurance penetration, but rather the extent of financial protection within the existing insurance schemes. In 2011, 95 percent of China’s population was covered under one of its three main national health insurance schemes: New Rural Cooperative Medical Scheme, Urban Employees Basic Medical Insurance and Urban Residents Basic Medical Insurance. China’s three national schemes were each established within the past two decades in response to restructuring after Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms.

Yet, as reported by The World Bank, in 2013, individual out-of-pocket payments across all three schemes accounted for 34 percent of total health expenditures. Unable to afford the excessive out-of-pocket burden, 35 percent of urban households and 43 percent of rural households could not access health care – the limited access and financial protection benefits lead to financial strain.

In comparing the health-insurance landscape across India and China, there are notable features. In India, federal- and state-sponsored insurance schemes were seen as instrumental to enhancing private-sector participation in health-care delivery in locations beyond large cities. State-sponsored health-insurance schemes in India purchase from and contract with the private sector for delivery of insured services. As the private sector provides for more than 80 percent of India’s health-care needs, such public-private synergies present an effective solution. Hence, leveraging the strength of the Indian health-care private sector, most government-sponsored insurance schemes actively recruit private hospitals as part of their network.

In China, on the other hand, health insurance has been modeled as a tool to improve efficiency and control rising costs of government facilities, introducing accountability.

In India, the health insurance is scattered among players from across the government and private sector. India’s health insurance has huge variations in coverage. Most health-insurance schemes in India cover hospitalization with few provisions for outpatient, primary or preventive care. Coverage on hospitalization can include waiting periods, exclusions and other details that limit financial support for the insured.

China, primarily dominated by three health insurance schemes, experiences less product variability. The three schemes offer little to no reimbursement for outpatient services. For inpatient services, patients generally pay a deductible and then are broadly reimbursed for remaining expenses – 41 percent for the rural program, 65 percent for the urban employees program, and 45 percent for the urban residents program. Such reimbursement rates force patients to shoulder around half the cost themselves, creating incentives for patients to delay seeking care.


As India works towards securing extended coverage for its citizens and China moves towards optimizing coverage benefits, the systems should model key interventions to ensure desired success for both nations. India’s motivation to promote state-sponsored health insurance is driven by attempts to optimize shrinking public expenditures. As state-sponsored health-insurance schemes become mainstream for India, there is an urgent need to focus on strengthening delivery within both the public and private sector.

India and China each must focus on establishing appropriate governance and coordination mechanisms across the delivery value-chain. As India struggles to extend coverage and China struggles with surging out-of-pocket expenditures, a health-systems perspective and a view on end-to-end care mechanisms offer the only affordable way forward.

Insurance is a key lever in health-systems design. But for health insurance as an instrument to be truly effective, delivery systems need to be responsive. Health insurance does offer a promising answer for easing expenditures. Stronger commitment towards comprehensive care is required – commitment among providers towards preventive and primary care, commitment from payers and insurance providers towards an inclusive-care design as extended benefits.

Appropriate timing for the introduction of health insurance as a financing tool within an economy is essential. Health insurance has a much better chance of being both inclusive and effective in an economy with well- developed, managed and governed health-care infrastructure. Both India and China should align their health-insurance priorities with essential needs of their delivery systems. Both India and China should view their insurance interventions as a catalytic tool allowing them to build effective health-care delivery systems.

Zeena Johar is a 2015 Yale World Fellow and the founder of SughaVazahvu Healthcare serving rural India. She has been recognized as an Ashoka Fellow in 2013 and Aspen Fellow in 2014. She holds a PhD from ETH, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, in drug discovery. Xue Ying Hwang is a senior studying Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology in Yale College.

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