NHI will boost SA's economy, says health minister

National Health Insurance will be beneficial for the South African economy, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has said.

The minister and other officials from the department on Thursday briefed Parliament's portfolio committee on health on the NHI Fund.

The bill was tabled earlier in August. NHI will see South Africans subscribe to a national health insurance fund in a bid to provide comprehensive healthcare services equitably at private and public healthcare facilities. Government wants it to be fully implemented over three phases by 2026.

Mkhize responded to concerns raised by some members of Parliament (MPs) that South Africa cannot afford to fund NHI, given the dire economic situation.

Mkhize said that countries which have implemented NHI are in a much better economic situation than they were when they started the programme. He listed Japan as an example.

Japan implemented NHI more than 50 years ago. "At that point it was a few years after the Second World War. Japan was almost in ruins. They were in a worse situation than the SA economy is in now," Mkhize said. Now Japan boasts the longest life expectancy for citizens, he added.

Although the South Africa is going through a difficult economic situation, Mkhize said that delaying NHI will not guarantee the economy will improve.

"We do know once we improve access to health, we will have more citizens contributing to the economic wellbeing of the country.

"We know investment in health services has been a stimulant for economic growth in many countries and contributed to the development of human capital and a healthier population," he said.

The World Health Organisation is setting a deliverable for countries in the African continent to move toward universal healthcare access, Mkhize added. "We are moving in a direction that's a global movement. We delayed long enough. We cannot afford not to implement NHI," he said.

Medical schemes

Adviser to the health minister Aquina Thulare said that NHI is expected to improve the health outcomes of the population, life expectancy and reduce the amount of money people are currently paying in medical schemes.

"If we have a healthy population we will have a healthy labour force that is productive and gives certainty to those wanting to invest in the country that there is a healthy labour force which can be relied upon when they make investments," Thulare said.

It is envisioned that NHI will run complementary to medical schemes and there should not be a duplication of health services provided. Treasury in 2010/2011 conducted an economic impact assessment on NHI and determined that to achieve economic sustainability, there should be a complementary system between NHI and medical schemes, and not a duplicative one, she reiterated.

Deputy Director General on NHI Anban Pillay added that the bill defines that medical schemes will provide services that the NHI Fund will not reimburse. The health minister is yet to outline what these services will be.

Presidential Adviser Dr Olive Shisana also weighed in on the impact of NHI on the economy. She dispelled concerns from MPs that "new money" is needed to fund the R256bn NHI is expected to cost.

"People think in order to fund NHI we need a new R256bn. We are repurposing existing money [to fund NHI]," she said.

Shisana said government plans to manage NHI in a "fiscally responsible" manner. "In a manner that is not going to be destroying the country," she added.

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