Achieving Universal Health Coverage: It's About Time

Imagine if you had to pay for treatment of illness out-of-pocket, and that doing so posed a significant strain on your family's finances. Unfortunately, this is the reality hundreds of millions of people around the world face when they go to the clinic. This is not a new challenge by any means, and 100 countries are now working to tackle this issue through universal health coverage (UHC).

This idea of protecting people against catastrophic financial ruin as a result of seeking health services has been aspirational for many years. UHC has been championed as an enabler of improving access and quality of health services around the world while protecting people from the burden of high out-of-pocket expenses. This is not an easy feat, particularly for low- and middle-income countries that are struggling with strained resources and a range of health challenges, including infectious diseases, chronic illnesses, child survival and maternal mortality. But the successes of Mexico, Chile, Thailand and other nations have demonstrated that it can be done. Furthermore, the inclusion of UHC in the recently-adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) gives countries the impetus to redouble efforts to make universal health coverage a reality and has triggered renewed interest in this issue from bilateral donors, implementing agencies and the private sector.

Why? Because the interconnectedness between health and economic development is well-established. One need not look further than the Ebola epidemic as a poignant reminder of how infectious disease outbreaks can quickly dismantle years of development progress. Similarly, noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancers, heart disease, chronic respiratory conditions and diabetes pose long-term financial stress on families because of high out-of-pocket expenses. Because they hit people during their prime working years, NCDs result in lost wages, causing further economic distress. In effect, the greater global prosperity promised by the SDGs cannot be achieved without UHC.

The addition of UHC in the SDGs will foster greater political commitment and help unlock more resources for this issue. We saw this as the global community worked to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. The Rockefeller Foundation and its partners deserve our thanks for building the evidence base and raising the profile of universal health coverage as an enabler of better health and greater prosperity for millions of people around the world.

But achieving UHC is difficult at best. It requires a marriage between the art of allocating resources appropriately with the reality of the burden of disease and what can be done to mitigate it. It calls for balancing the provision of services for the poor with reaching low and middle-income families who neither qualify for subsidized programs, nor can afford high out-of-pocket costs.

Each country has to determine its unique path to UHC, develop a strategy to reach that goal and engage other sectors to support their efforts. Multilateral institutions, private providers, patient groups, NGOs, foundations and companies have the expertise, knowledge and human capacity that can assist countries in achieving UHC.

The World Health Organization and governments need to do more to significantly engage the private sector in finding solutions to support countries in realizing UHC. Many companies already do work to advance progress toward global health goals -- from investing in infrastructures to strengthening supply chains, developing life-saving therapies to training health workers. Indeed, Dr. Stefan J. Oschmann, Vice Chairman and Deputy CEO at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, and President of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, is championing the issue of UHC during his tenure as the leader of IFPMA. This is the type of visionary leadership needed to mobilize efforts to tackle complex challenges.

It is only through greater collaboration across sectors that real progress will be made toward achieving UHC. There is too much to do and too much at stake for the global health community to continue to spin its wheels about why it needs to engage the private sector and other non-State actors. Let's focus on how the private sector can help realize universal health coverage for the millions of people around the globe who need it the most. It's about time.