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Whatever Happened to India's National Free Medicines Scheme?

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and current Finance Minister Arun Jaitley have both mentioned provision of ‘free drugs’ in their speeches. The National Health Mission mentioned this initiative as a special focus. Given India’s disease burden and high levels of out of pocket expenditure, this would be a boon to the masses who struggle to afford basic healthcare. However, this promise has remained only on paper as no funds were allocated for it.

India does have price control mechanisms in place, but only for a handful of common drugs. Irrational prescription practices also add to the financial burden of patients and their families. While states like Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan have run successful schemes to provide free drugs at public healthcare facilities, these are yet to be replicated in other states. Central and state government health insurance schemes concentrate only on tertiary healthcare, and fail to tackle illness at preliminary stages.

This analytical feature by public health activist Chhaya Pachauli explores problems surrounding the issue of free drugs. It also examines the effectualness of existing schemes, and what can be done to address the obstacles.