Government anxious to start work on the NHI: Mkhize

Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize says that the government will get back to work on the new National Health Insurance (NHI) which has been on the backburner following the outbreak of Covid-19.

Speaking at a gathering of religious leaders on Thursday (3 September), Mkhize said that before the pandemic struck, the government held many consultations where it received overwhelming support for the NHI.

“It was all about building the resilience of the healthcare sector to ensure consistent delivery of quality health care to our people. At that stage, we all agreed that any obstacles hindering collaboration between all sectors should be eliminated as we took the path to universal health coverage.”

The health minister said that the government now plans to resume its work on the NHI.

“We are all anxious to get used to Covid-19 so that we can pick up where we left off and accelerate our path towards the implementation of the National Health Insurance.

“I am convinced that we will not only prevail over Covid-19, implement the NHI and achieve Universal Health Coverage in our lifetimes, but that we will have stitched a new fabric for society – a fabric that does not compromise on alleviating poverty, preventing hunger, securing jobs and income and, overall, protecting the promise of a better life for all.”

The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on the roll-out of the NHI, with an analysis of the public participation process delayed due to the lockdown.

Parliament’s portfolio committee on health is grappling with the sheer number of responses it has received around the bill, with 32,227 written and 32,634 emailed submissions received.

While the deadline for submissions closed at the end of November 2019, the committee has battled with the number of submission received, with just 1,031 out of 32,217 hand-delivered submissions scanned, validated and captured.

Parliament is now looking at an external service provider to complete the process by the end of the year.

The committee said it has received varying responses around the introduction of the bill.

The majority of the submissions made during the provincial public hearings support the bill in its current form. The committee said that a similar picture emerges with the hand-delivered submissions.

By comparison, the email submissions paint a contrasting picture and show that a number of people do not support the NHI in its current form.

Staffing challenges 

The NHI bill also faces opposition from labour unions who argue that the government has not done enough to fix the country’s existing healthcare sector.

National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) handed over a memorandum on Friday (4 September) in which it warns that the sector is understaffed.

“We (also) demand government urgently fill all vacant posts in the public healthcare sector and ensure that we start to build the building blocks for the implementation of the National Health Insurance NHI scheme,” said the union.

A leaked document from the Department of Health shows that South Africa is facing a major shortage in healthcare professionals in the next 10 years.

It projects that an additional 97,000 health workers will be needed by 2025 to address inequities across provinces, with community healthcare workers making up about one third of that figure.

Modelling shows that an additional 88,000 additional primary healthcare workers will also be needed by 2025, and that the number of medical specialists also needs to increase significantly to keep up with demographic and epidemiological changes.

Funding this shortfall of workers would cost upwards of R34 billion to cover salaries.

Systemic issues 

The opposition Democratic Alliance has also called the NHI bill ‘flawed’ in that it will not address many of the systemic issues in the healthcare sector.

While the party is not opposed to the idea of universal healthcare, it warns that the bill will not have the desired impact.

“We need a functioning primary and district health system across the country which is kitted with adequate infrastructure; enough nurses and doctors and free from corruption which takes services away from the people it is meant to serve.

“The NHI Bill will not achieve this. We do not need a centralised approach to healthcare which seeks to create yet another state-owned-enterprise that will be open to mass corruption,” it said.

The DA said that cracks in the health care system can be seen in provinces like the Eastern Cape which has shown that years of neglect and mismanagement will render a country completely ill-prepared for a global health crisis like this one.

“Had our health system not been on its knees already, we would have been in a much better position to produce more ICU beds and functioning health facilities which have filled critical posts.

“There is no doubt that we would have been better prepared to deal with Covid-19 and not have to undergo emergency procurement processes just to get the basics right.”

Read: Coronavirus accelerates South Africa’s NHI plans

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Government anxious to start work on the NHI: Mkhize