What patients hope to hear from the Finance Minister

PT Jyothi Datta | Updated on February 01, 2020

High on the aam aadmi’s Budget hopes is some govt help to meet treatment costs

Latha* sits with a far away look in her eyes. Her face, partly swollen from cancer and surgery, is lined on the other side by a slim tube taped to her skin.

“The 10th (of February) will make it one month of my surgery,” she says in silent anger, sitting on a make-shift cloth bed on a pavement near a Mumbai hospital. Hailing from Bihar, Latha had come to the city with her husband to get treatment for the cancer in her mouth. They have spent ₹80,000 on surgery and now the chemotherapy and radiation would begin, says the 30-year-old, unaware of the schedule but worried about the treatment bills they still have to pay.

When told that Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman would be coming out with the Budget, a Government exercise that would allocate funds towards healthcare for all citizens, Latha responds with a bleak gaze and silence.

It does not take much to figure out where financial resources are desperately required in the country. For patients, on hospitals and on health services.

Lanes alongside the hospital where Latha goes for treatment and neighbouring ones, too, have patients living on pavements. Patients from different parts of the country gather around to recount their own health problems and why they travel so far for treatment.

So what do you hope to hear in the Finance Minister’s Budget speech on Saturday? “Some help to take care of our treatment costs” they respond in different voices and languages.

Little awareness of schemes

Latha has a young child back home with her mother. Though she is a “little educated” by her own admission, she is not aware of the Government’s Ayushman Bharat (AB) insurance and the coverage it guarantees citizens like her.

Sitting at arm’s length from her is another couple and their daughter, also from Bihar. The father, Lalit, is being treated for oral cancer and he sits wrapped in a shawl, face swollen and a thin tube taped to his skin. His wife is aware of AB, “but our names were not on the list,” she says, another common occurrence with people from a weak economic background.

“We sold land for the treatment but even that money has run out,” she says, as her young daughter informs that they’ve been on the pavement for around six months. About ₹40,000 has already been spent and the chemo and radiotherapy are yet to start.

Hailing from Amravati (Maharashtra), Anita and her mother also wait for treatment. About 14 years ago, the mother had a surgery done at about ₹2 lakh and now she’s been told the cancer has re-appeared. Anita agrees there are places for patient families to stay at a nominal cost. “It’s ₹50 for one person and for the two of us, that’s ₹100. Who has so much money,” she says, a tragic contrast in a city that’s home to lavish lifestyles, skyscrapers and swank cars. For the moment, a wall, where several small plastic bottles filled with water are placed, marks “home”.

Even if there are government schemes for patients, they are largely not aware of it, no one informs them and they are too scared to ask the doctors, say patients. An elderly lady being treated at another hospital shouts out, “Ask the Prime Minister to help us with food and medicines. Everything is expensive,” says the lady with none to call family and with no home.

Comfort for caregivers

Having seen the unpleasant side of healthcare, healthcare campaigner Jayant Singh calls for government focus on hospital infrastructure and subsidised living for caregivers. About 30 per cent of patient spending goes into accommodation of the patient family, he says. Singh has been speaking for patient rights after his little girl passed away more than a couple of years ago of dengue and the family was left with a hefty hospital bill.

If China can build a hospital in weeks, he says on the Coronavirus aftermath, India should build large hospitals every year, possibly in private partnership but managed by the government. India needs to boost health spending to 5 per cent of GDP (from 1 per cent-odd), he says. And hospitals need to be well-staffed, for which doctors need to be incentivised to enable them to work from anywhere. Everyone needs to have access to universal quality healthcare, never mind their economic background, he says. Unlike the other patient families, Singh will be watching Budget 2020 to see if, among other things, it holds out anything meaningful for health.

*name changed to protect person’s identity

Published on January 31, 2020

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