Budget 2022: Health spend ‘disappointing’ but experts laud ‘digital age’ vision

Actual amount set aside for health has risen by 16.59% since last year

City of joy (File) Representational image | Salil Bera

Given that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was all over the Union Budget 2022-23, the health sector itself hasn't got the allocation it was expecting. Most developed countries apportion health expenditure at over 8 per cent of the GDP. In India, experts note that even this budget has not raised the spend to over 2.5 per cent.

Suryaprabha Sadasivan of the policy research and consulting firm Chase India said that despite the lessons from the pandemic, the total increment in the health budget is only 0.2 per cent over last year, which is “highly disappointing.''

On the brighter side, however, the actual amount set aside for health has risen by 16.59 per cent since last year's budgetary estimates, with the amount reserved for health research rising by over 20 per cent from Rs 2,662 crore to Rs 3,200 crore.

While the government's health spend will continue to disappoint for years (there isn't likely to be a doubling anytime soon), the fraction is increasing, even if only marginally.

The highlight of this budget was not the spend, but the vision in taking healthcare forward, into the digital age. An equally important aspect is the recognition for more investment in mental health. The pandemic brought many aspects of mental health into focus, even as it underscored the need to strengthen primary healthcare. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the launch of a National Digital Health Ecosystem which will consist of digital registries of health providers and health facilities, a unique health identity and universal access to health facilities. She also announced the launch of a national tele mental health programme, with NIMHANS, Bengaluru, being the nodal agency, reaching out to a network of 23 centres. “This increased investment towards health infrastructure and focus on a holistic approach to health is a testimony of the commitment to building stronger health systems in the country,'' said Vikram Thaploo, CEO, Apollo Telehealth.

Ashutosh Raghuvanshi, MD and CEO, Fortis Healthcare, too, commended the moves. He added that upgrading two lakh anganwadis would, in addition to the digital health mission, provide greater access to healthcare. He noted that “the digital health ecosystem is an area where we would have appreciated some more allocation, especially in the national digital health ID initiative”. He noted that since the programme was a long term one, funds might be made available subsequently.

Harsh Mahajan, president of NATHEALTH, the country's healthcare federation, commended the digital health mission and the upgrading of anganwadis. He said that aligning national skill framework with industry needs and value-based procurement augurs well for modernisation of healthcare. “The focus on promoting R and D in artificial intelligence, genome sequencing and pharma are much needed demands being fulfilled.'' Mahajan, however, suggested that the government consider lowering the cost of financing capital and free flow of credit into the sector.

CEO of Save the Children, Sudarshan Suchi, said that supporting the millet mission and allocation of Rs 60,000 crore for the household water tap project were other significant interventions towards improving health. He said it was important that these benefits reach the most marginalised children. “The budget speed made no mention on allocating budget for improving the core health sector. In keeping with the adverse impact of the pandemic on the health of children, it is critical that adequate budget allocation be made, in keeping with our demand to have a budgetary allocation of 2.5 per cent of the GDP.

“This is the country's first post vaccination budget and the policy consistency is maintained. The planned increase in capital expenditure is likely to boost economic growth and employment,'' said Sudarshan Jain, general secretary if the Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance. He added that the extension of deadline for commencement of business to claim benefits of concessional tax regime for manufacturing will support investment in the pharma sector.