(Theme cartoons added by TW from internet)
The Dalai Lama has succinctly described the crass stupidity of modern-day humans who take their health for granted. Man, he has said, sacrifices his health in order to make money and then sacrifices money to recuperate his health. This explains why man has become a victim of the thriving healthcare industry. The Buddha has preached that health is wealth. Even a non-Buddhist who gets the shock of his life on being given a huge bill at a private hospital will agree with the Enlightened One!
How bad the situation would have been for the poor if not for the free healthcare system in this country is not difficult to guess. But, sadly, the public is still at the mercy of private hospitals owing to the many ills that the public health sector is afflicted with. Newspapers are full of heart-rending appeals from poor patients for public assistance as they cannot pay for life-saving operations in private hospitals. Successive governments have made no serious effort to develop the state-run hospital network and liberate the sick from the clutches of mudalalis. Budgetary allocations for the public health sector have recorded a steady decline.
However, the incumbent government has taken some progressive steps for the benefit of the sick. Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne is reported to have ordered that the prices of artificial eye lenses be slashed immediately. A lens imported from India is sold here with an average markup of 500%, according to the Health Ministry. This is a crime.
How can those who keep such a huge margin at the expense of visually impaired fellow citizens call themselves humans? The government must do everything in its power to stop this kind of exploitation of the sick. The incidence of cataract remains alarmingly high. The lens racket has been going on for a long time and it is high time it was tackled once and for all.
We usually have no civil word to say about politicians, especially government spokesmen who have no control over their restless tongues. But, credit where credit is due, Minister Senaratne has helped bring down the prices of some drugs much to the relief of the public though there is a long way to go before he can call the government drug policy a success. One may agree with his detractors that the Big Pharma is far from tamed, but the fact remains that some relief is better than no relief at all.
The Health Minister’s decision to provide more eye lenses free of charge at state-run hospitals is commendable. His free-stent project has stood thousands of heart patients in good stead; some unscrupulous doctors and surgical device importers have been thriving on what may be called the lucrative stent trade. A wag says hardly anyone who visits a cardiologist returns home without a stent in his or her ticker. Minister Senaratne has also succeeded in persuading the government to remove the ceiling on financial allocations for treating cancer patients. These are, no doubt, meritorious deeds for which the ruling coalition should be thanked in spite of its many failings.
Government interventions to impose price ceilings for the sake of the public usually lead to artificial shortages of the goods concerned and the lowering of their quality. The mess the present administration has got into in trying to control rice prices may serve as an example.
The challenge before the Health Ministry is to ensure that reasonably priced eye lenses will be freely available and their quality will not suffer due to the slashing of their exorbitant prices. The most effective way of regulating the profit-hungry private importers hell bent on exploiting the hapless public is to strengthen the state sector as a formidable competitor. The government ought to develop state outfits such as the State Pharmaceutical Corporation and make the best use of them to bring relief to the public.