Union Budget 2022 – a budget of many firsts

Sagar Group of HospitalsSagar Group of Hospitals

With the nation entering its third year battling the COVID-19 pandemic, Union Budget 2022 showcases the government’s focus on mental health and the push towards the digitisation of the healthcare sector. As noted by the finance minister in her address, the national vaccination program has made giant strides and, currently at 1.67 billion doses, helped mitigate the Omicron wave and withstand the long battle against the virus.

Building on the strengths of the National COVID Vaccination Program, the proposed spending of Rs. 15, 163 crores (for 2022-2023) for central schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Swasthya Suraksha Yojna (PMSSY) and the National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) shows that healthcare is seen as the necessary foundation for the economic health of the nation. This view reflects suggestions in Economic Survey 2020-21; as the annual health expenditure inches closer to the National Health Policy target of 2.5% of GDP by 2025 (budgeted expenditure reached 2.1% of GDP in 2021-22), out-of-pocket (OOP) expenses may decrease from 65% to 30% of the total healthcare spending.

The government attempts to address one of the gravest challenges of the COVID crisis that has cut across gender, age, and profession—mental health. With Budget 2022, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the National Tele Mental Health program to support the mental and emotional well-being of society at large. Working under the aegis of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) and supported by the International Institute of Information Technology Bangalore (IIIT-B), the ambitious program proposes the launch of a network of 23 tele-mental centres of excellence to offer quality mental healthcare and counselling services across the country. 

The program is sure to benefit from the push towards digitising health services. Telemedicine and video consultations have proven to be highly effective during the pandemic while protecting patient privacy. Going digital will not only help democratise access to much-needed mental healthcare, but also address the shortage of mental health professionals in rural India. Depressive disorders can no longer be considered an urban phenomenon and the need for accessible mental health services in small-town and rural India is bigger than ever. This proposal by the Centre will also help destigmatise psychiatric health and normalise conversations about seeking treatment for mental health illnesses in the long run.

The Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission (ABDM) forges ahead with the proposed National Digital Health Ecosystem. Having rolled out the ABHA (Ayushman Bharat Health Account) National Digital Health Card to consolidate patient history, the digital health ecosystem aims to create open digital registries of healthcare providers and facilities and leverage unique health identities to improve universal access to quality healthcare. Long-awaited by the medical community, these digital tools will help doctors improve medical responses in emergency situations by offering quick contextual information about patients.

While the Finance Minister has highlighted the significant progress in 95% of 112 aspirational districts, the country’s current healthcare infrastructure still remains vulnerable to the uncertainties of the pandemic. The budgeted allocation for healthcare continues to fall short of the long-promised 3% of the GDP and lacks focus on primary healthcare investment. Strengthening our health infrastructure and training more medical personnel need to be made national priorities to win the fight against COVID. 

Additionally, in spite of shortages of essential COVID supplies during the first and second waves, measures to bolster domestic production of medical devices and reduce the high import dependence have been absent in the latest Union Budget. While the government has extended financial support to digital banking and payment platforms and this will help promote financial inclusion, similar support to improve current coverage of health insurance could have been introduced also. Moreover, the Indian healthcare sector is in dire need of funds to improve R&D and upgrade existing technologies and services to reduce the overall disease burden.

So far, the Indian health sector has been navigating the pandemic by adapting fast and adopting digitisation. With Budget 2022, India may see a societal shift where our collective emotional and mental struggles through the pandemic may be addressed with greater acceptance. We may also see the advent of data-driven medicine and the end of disconnected storage of patient information. 

But the wide-arching needs of the nation’s health need to be accorded much greater priority. Although allocation to healthcare has improved over the past two years since the pandemic, we still have a long road ahead of us in making quality healthcare affordable and accessible to the vulnerable masses.

Contributed by: Ishiqa Multani , President- Sagar Group of Hospitals 

By TIS Staffer
the authorBy TIS Staffer

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