Corruption is the biggest problem facing the health sector, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih declared at an event held on Tuesday night to mark the golden jubilee of health services on Eydhafushi island in Baa atoll.
“Schemes like Aasandha [health insurance] fail to achieve its true purpose and become a burden on the state budget because of corruption,” he said.
Last September, the World Health Organisation recommended an urgent review to make the scheme sustainable and more efficient. Introduced in 2012, Aasandha is a non-contributory scheme, without an annual individual financial limit, and can be used in some hospitals abroad.
It emerged in March this year that the anti-corruption watchdog was investigating suspected misappropriation of funds by former government officials.
In his remarks, President Solih acknowledged that poor health services on all inhabited islands was one of the most common and longstanding complaints of the public. Challenges included space constraints and lack of enough doctors and nurses as well as the unavailability of medicine and laboratory services.
Thousands are forced to travel to Malé seeking treatment and often have to wait long periods to secure an appointment with specialist doctors, he added.
“These complaints came about because of the policy used to develop the Maldives,” he said, referring to the concentration of development projects in the Greater Malé region, which drove migration to the overcrowded capital for jobs, education and healthcare.
But critics have questioned the commitment to pursue decentralisation as pledged by Solih, whose Jazeera Raajje (Island Nation) campaign slogan sought to draw a contrast between the previous administration’s goal of consolidating 70 percent of the population in the capital and its suburbs.
Solih said his administration’s health policy focuses on improving regional hospitals and island health centres through decentralisation.
Construction work on a MVR50 million (US$3.2 million) new building for the Baa atoll hospital will begin this year, he pledged, after which dialysis, physiotherapy and scanning services would be available in the north-central atoll.
In his remarks, Health Minister Abdulla Ameen said the government’s goal is to reduce travel to Malé for healthcare purposes by half before the end of the year. Work is underway to expand and improve services in five regions, he said.
The president meanwhile praised initiatives taken in the past by the Eydhafushi health centre “instead of waiting for the central government in Malé.”
He also spoke about the challenges in introducing modern medicine and transitioning from traditional forms. When teams were sent from Malé to vaccinate children 30 years ago, Solih said people from some islands had spent the day in hiding.
As a result of efforts throughout the decades to raise awareness, the Maldives became the first country in South Asia to eradicate malaria and filaria, he noted. The Maldives has also eliminated polio, lymphatic filariasis and measles. Infant mortality was reduced dramatically and life expectancy reached above 75 years.
The key to the successes was a primary health care programme that stressed preventative care and trained health workers, doctors, nurses and midwives, Solih suggested.
He pledged to prioritise the programme starting this year.
According to the Health Protection Agency, 84 percent of deaths in the country is now caused by non-communicable diseases.
Out of 1,300 deaths in 2016, 36 percent was caused by cardiovascular diseases, 17 percent from cancers and nine percent from chronic respiratory diseases.
The new administration has increased funding for programmes to raise awareness about harmful products such as cigarettes and energy drinks.