IF what the Minister of Health, Dr. Onyebuchi Chukwu said recently is anything to go by, then we may soon see a sharp drop in the incidence of sending public officers abroad for medical treatment.
Explaining the impending policy to newsmen recently, Dr. Chukwu said it would ensure that any public sector official suffering health problems that could easily be handled within the country would have to receive treatment in the country.
“However, if such an official insists on an overseas medical trip such an official would pay from personal resources. According to him: “Government is thinking of a situation in which the health ministry or minister will be the one to approve any request for medical treatment of government officials using government funds. That means the minister can refuse the official from using public funds to treat a medical condition abroad when such could be handled here in the country. If the official insists on treating himself abroad, he could then use his personal funds.”
This impending measure is obviously in response to the general outcry against the high propensity of top government officials to travel abroad at public expense over medical conditions that could be handled locally. Commentators have often blamed this trend for the continued neglect of the health sector by successive regimes. Today, India has become one of the greatest destinations for medical tourism, and Nigerians constitute the majority of those going to India, Europe and America for treatment. It is not only in the health sector that critics have called for a ban on frequent recourse for dependence on foreign countries, especially by government officials.
Calls have also been made for a banning of officials from sending their children and wards to private and foreign schools to force them to revive public schools. It has also been widely advocated for government offices to stop using generators or using helicopters to move about.
The logic behind these calls is that if these officials are forced to use the same facilities that the public they purport to serve use everyday, they will be forced to upgrade them to international standards for the use of everyone.
As much as we recognise the good intention of government to respond to these sentiments we hope great care would be taken in ensuring that the administration of this policy by the Federal Ministry of Health is devoid of the usual politics and corruption that bedevil every good policy in Nigeria. It is still possible for officials charged with the responsibility of vetting genuine cases for foreign medical trips to reduce it to instruments of ethnic favouritism and avenues to corruptly enrich those who approve these foreign trips.
There is no substitute for a massive rejuvenation of the health sector. Due to the large population of Nigeria and the level of the health needs of its citizens, this country is a big market for health products and services. Through sound government programmes, it is very possible to attract the best possible health service providers from any part of the world to set up shop in Nigeria profitably. Already, many state governments have put in huge investments in the health sector, inviting renowned health service managers from around the globe to work with them on a public-private partnership (PPP) basis.
There was a time that foreign trip for afflicted Nigerians was extremely rare. But today, almost a quarter of Nigerians travelling to India and other parts of Asia are heading for last-ditch attempts to save their lives when a properly run system back home would have prevented many terminal cases.
The restoration of our health services would attract our own well trained health service professionals, who are excelling in all parts of the world to embark on a reversed brain drain and take advantage of unfolding opportunities here.
One of the problems with our health sector services is that policies are not driven to logical conclusions. The National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) introduced during the Obasanjo Presidency seems to have suffered a stillbirth. If that programme had been implemented as conceived there would be fewer reasons for foreign medical trips.
The lower cadres of the public service rarely benefit from foreign medical trips. It is a privilege for the topmost officials.
Only a successfully implemented NHIS would take health services to both high and low and attract investors in the health sector.