health experts take on GOVT over nhi

CAPE Town activists and health experts are planning to occupy a major city private hospital in a bid to pressure the government and the private health sector "to deliver a national health insurance that benefits the poor".

About 200 health experts and NGO representatives gathered at Cape Town's Red Cross Children's Hospital on Saturday and vowed to take a "Treatment Action Campaign- style of action" to put pressure on the government. They also threatened to embark on mass action a week before Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan delivers his Budget speech in February.

Mercia Andrews, director of the Trust for Community Outreach and Education, said the NHI ran the risk of becoming a "stillborn baby'' if government's proposed NHI turned into a bail-out for private hospitals.

Professor David Saunders of the University of the Western Cape School of Health said the government funded the private health sector at 4,5 percent of the gross domestic product, even though it only catered for 15 percent of the population. "Private medical IIaids get a tax rebate from government and make a big profit because they are not taxed," Saunders said.

He said the NHI would see the government stopping the tax rebate and putting that "pool of money into a fund that will be used for everyone to get services free from both the private and public health sectors".

He cautioned that the NHI would not make a difference to the lives of the poor unless the government first came up with a plan to attract doctors and nurses to rural areas .

Saunders said although the government had come up with a plan to fund the NHI through imposing an extra 2percent tax on working people, they had not done the sums to know how many different services this money would buy.

The NHI will see the government set money aside to buy services from private and public medical professionals for every South African. But nobody knows if each person would be allocated enough money to buy advanced and expensive medical treatment from private hospitals - the kind of treatment that is lacking in the public sector.

Black Sash spokesperson Ratula Beukman said "mismanagement and staff shortages" must be sorted out first. "It is imperative that the proposed NHI system doesn't result in the extension of the inadequate service currently available to the poor," she said.