Dr Harsh Vardhan will take charge of the Health Ministry on Monday. While he is not new to the ministry — he was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first choice for the post in 2014 — much has happened since then, and the former environment minister will have his hands full when he joins.
There are the pending legislations, including the National Medical Commission Bill that seeks to replace the Medical Council of India, a Bill to increase the legal limit for abortion, and a Bill to regulate allied healthcare services. For the former physician, though, the biggest challenge may be in consolidating the initial work done in the flagship Ayushman Bharat programme and in integrating its two arms — the Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana administered by the National Health Authority and health and wellness centres being set up under the aegis of the Health Ministry.
Under PMJAY, the target is to provide an annual health cover of Rs 5 lakh to 10.74 crore families or 50 crore people. Of these, about 3.5 crore people have been identified and cards issued to them. The preventive arm of Ayushman Bharat aims to set up 1,53,000 health and wellness centres across the country.
Launched in April last year, Ayushman Bharat was the NDA’s big plan in an election year. However, the scheme did not get the kind of play in the BJP’s Lok Sabha campaign as other schemes like Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and Ujjwala. The reason, officials say, was the PMO’s discomfort with the flurry of “frivolous” procedures such as cataract surgeries that were done under the scheme. There was also discomfort within the government about how the scheme had panned out, especially in states like Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which have some of the worst health indicators. “These states started from scratch, so the progress is not quite in the same league as the others,” said a source.
Interestingly, West Bengal, before Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee decided to exit the scheme in January this year, had been one of the better performing states.
“We are yet to send a 100-day plan to the PMO. However, we have taken inputs from various departments and kept it ready. We can send a plan at short notice,” said a senior Health Ministry official.
In 2015, Dr Harsh Vardhan exited the ministry soon after moving an order that required tobacco packs to carry graphic warnings that were more than double the size of the prevalent ones. The tobacco warning order was finally implemented in 2017 after a long legal tussle. His return to the ministry would be big news for those who deal with tobacco — both for and against.
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