You are completing 18 months in office. What has been your greatest achievement?
We have worked on all fronts. Immunisation has been made really effective. In a year’s time it has increased by 5-7 per cent and if this phase keeps going, by 2019 we will be able to cover 90 per cent. Four new vaccines have been added, IPV, switchover from trivalent to bivalent, measles rubella, Japanese Encephalitis. By introducing Rotavirus vaccine we have been able to save the lives of 80,000 children. In addition to routine immunisation 1.62 crore children have been partially immunised, and 45 lakh totally immunised.
We eliminated neonatal tetanus in June 2015, ahead of the 2016 deadline. We have a newborn national plan, have sanctioned 11 new AIIMS, six new AIIMS (have been) operationalised, three are working, (and the) rest are in the pipeline. Fifty-eight district hospitals have been identified to be upgraded as medical colleges (and) Rs 190 crore is being sanctioned for this.
Health has traditionally suffered from lack of funds. You got a substantial hike this year. Tell us what kind of deliberations went behind that decision.
The Prime Minister is sensitive towards health (sector) and it is being given top priority. Last year, for the first time, real expenditure exceeded budget estimates. This year there is a 39-per cent increase. The capacity of expenditure — we showed 96 per cent capacity…by our hard work involving the states… Budget will not be a problem in the coming days as well — only, you have to spend.
Where are we on NEET (national common entrance test for medical and dental courses)? Will it start this year?
We had gone for a review after the Supreme Court stopped NEET. It is our regulation (and) we are going forward in that direction. NEET has started. Phase one is over, phase two will happen. A few issues have been raised by health ministers of different states — issues related to language (in which students will take the test), issues related to syllabus. We will sort that out, but NEET is to go forward.
What is happening on restructuring of the Medical Council of India (MCI)?
We have formed a committee. They will come out with their recommendations soon (and) we will go forward in that direction. They will give their report in one-and-a-half months.
What stage is the health protection scheme in?
It will roll out in 2017. We will give a coverage of Rs 1 lakh to a family, Rs 30,0000 each for senior citizens. It will also be a programme where approximately 8 crore EWS (economically weaker sections) families — that is 40 crore people — will be covered. We will launch it on a digital platform and payments will be through that (online) as much as possible.
What is happening to the free drugs and diagnostics programme?
That scheme has been rolled out. Now it is on the states — we are paying whatever they need (and) giving technical support. We are paying about Rs 900-1,000 crore. Over and above that, we are giving money under the national dialysis programme. We had issued guidelines for free diagnostics and drugs even before the Budget was presented.
Where do we go from here?
Every area is to be addressed, every area has gained momentum (and) that pace has to be continued. No one thing in health can be a priority. For example, new viruses develop. Can you remove the National Institute of Virology from the priority list? We have done good in ebola and Zika, we have strengthened systems on dengue and swine flu… We were ready with our Zika virus advisory one day before the WHO advisory. Ports and airports were activated, we were ready…
This department will succeed only when you make your states succeed, interactions with them…that is an important aspect on which I am working.
Is there something you could not achieve in these 18 months?
Actually it is the matter of states’ cooperation. Rural health services have to be strengthened — that is one area where I am not getting the kind of response from the states that is needed. The problem is you have to take strong political decisions on rural postings. We have done all that could have been done from our side. We have given full powers to all state governments — come out with your own legislations if you have to, we do not mind.
Your government is cracking down on NGOs with foreign funding. But there are a lot of consultants from such organisations in your ministry.
Ministry and policymakers have to be clear about their goals and targets. You have to take support, but…consultants will work in the direction we show them.