Kenya To Launch Universal Health Coverage Pilot Of Free Healthcare

NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta is set to launch a major initiative on universal health coverage (UHC) on 13 December, in the presence of World Health Organization Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, positioning Kenya as a regional leader in the race to meet health-related UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Kenyan President Kenyatta addresses the WHO meeting today

Speaking today before the top leadership of the WHO, who are gathered in Nairobi this week to review plans for a major internal re-structuring, Kenyatta said the first pilot phase of the Kenya UHC rollout would involve a “strong focus on primary health care and to the fundamentals of health promotion and disease prevention, addressing determinants of health.”

“It should concern all of us that nearly half of the world’s population still do not have full coverage of essential health services; and that almost 12% of the world’s population spend, at least 10% of their household budgets, to pay for health care,” Kenyatta told the WHO officials assembled at Safari Park Hotel.

The world saw significant advances in the fight against under-5 mortality, HIV treatment, and deaths from tuberculosis during the era of the UN Millennial Development Goals (2000-2015), but weak health systems combined with a resurgence of drug resistant disease strains could erode those gains, Kenyatta added.

Kenya has made good progress in expanding access to primary health care services, free maternity services, elimination of user fees for public primary care facilities, and health insurance subsidies for elderly and severely disabled.

Still, many continue to fall behind, the President noted, saying: “Every year, one million Kenyans are driven below the poverty line by healthcare-related expenditures. Poverty predisposes vulnerable Kenyans to disease and slows all aspects of growth in the economy.”

“It is, therefore, with this realisation that we view the attainment of Universal Health Care not as a destination but as a continuous process, which will involve constant widening of the social safety nets to ensure that we leave no one behind as we strive to achieve our national health aspirations,” he declared.

Kisumu Site of Launch

This week’s UHC launch will take place in the city of Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest, on Lake Victoria’s shoreline. According to Kenyan media, which has already begun promoting the UHC initiative on TV and social media, the UHC pilot phase would involve four Kenyan counties — Kisumu, Nyeri, Machakos, and Isiolo.

In line with the primary health care focus, Kenya’s UHC would scale up services for immunization, family planning, antenatal and postnatal care. Other areas of focus include prevention of waterborne, vector-borne, TB and HIV, and sexually transmitted diseases. The programme also aims to improve nutrition of women and their children during their first five years of life.

Government officials say the counties were chosen due to their diversity of health challenges. Kisumu County has high rates of communicable diseases, while Nyeri, in central Kenya, has high rates of non-communicable diseases. Machakos, a rapidly growing region near Nairobi, has high incidence of road traffic accidents. Isiolo, a primarily rural area near major game reserves, suffers from high rates of maternal mortality, and is reportedly one of the poorest counties in Kenya despite being a growing resort destination.

The pilot will reportedly cost nearly 4 billion Kenyan Shillings (US$ 3.9 million) in the pilot stage, according to the Ministry of Health, and ten times that once expanded to all Kenyans, according to Health Cabinet Secretary Cicily Kariuki, speaking at a joint parliamentary meeting last month.

The World Bank and Government of Japan are among those said to be backing the plan financially, while the Kenyan government also hopes to finance the initiative through the National Hospital Insurance Fund.

While no precise timetable has yet been set for national rollout, more details may be announced on 13 December, said Kahaki Kimani, the Ministry of Health official in charge of UHC, also a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

As Kenyatta’s term of office ends in 2022, the President would likely try to scale up fully by that time as part of his “legacy projects,” observers said.

The UHC initiative is part of the Kenyan government’s Big Four Action Plan – a development blueprint, which is also focusing on enhancing manufacturing, food security and nutrition, and affordable housing.

Preparations for the launch are in final stages, with the Kenya Medical Supplies Authorities (KEMSA) sending consignments of supplies to the pilot counties, in anticipation of new demands on services.

Kenyan Ministry of Health officials confirmed that WHO Director General Dr Tedros will take part in the Kisumu launch of UHC, which is expected to reach at least 3.2 million citizens in its pilot phase.

WHO Leadership Meet in Nairobi

In an unprecedented move, the WHO Director General has meanwhile convened WHO’s top staff in Nairobi, rather than Geneva, for a global management meeting on his long-awaited restructure plan.

WHO Director General Dr Tedros at the WHO Global Management Meeting in Nairobi today

The reorganisation, which has been over a year in the making, aims at making WHO more responsive to country priorities and improving operational efficiencies. The goal is to reach what WHO announced in May as the “Triple Billion” target of 1 billion more people benefitting from universal health coverage, 1 billion people better protected from health emergencies, and 1 billion people enjoying better health and well-being by 2023. This, in turn, would accelerate progress towards achievement by 2030 of the targets for the Sustainable Development Goal 3 – Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages, including Universal Health Coverage for all.

While the WHO meeting was supposed to be a closed-door session, senior staff huddling in Nairobi took to social media to talk about the event as it happened.

“WHO impact: delivering the triple billion together. @DrTedros DG @WHO at the Global Management Meeting in Nairobi stated that the UN reform could not be achieved without @WHO reform; @WHO to be relevant, has impact in countries, technical excellence and innovative,” said Yitades Gebre, WHO representative for Suriname, in a tweet summarizing the aims of the restructuring.

Link to full remarks by President Kenyatta at the WHO meeting are here.


Image Credits: Yitades Gebre.

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