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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Health sector needs more than threats to heal

An acute health crisis has just boiled over, again. Unattended for over a decade, slow burning health governance issues now threaten the right to health for millions. I can almost see ancestor and health-worker organiser Dr. Odhiambo Olel rolling his eyes at us. Haven’t we learned anything since he organised that strike in 1972? When will Kenya reach a lasting solution?


There are four major challenges facing the right to health. There is a nationwide strike, doctors are unhappy with mandatory tax measures, hospitals have withdrawn from the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF), and citizens have gone to court again to block the implementation of the Social Health Insurance Fund (SHIF), the successor to NHIF.

The Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union strike hit day 9 yesterday. As medics marched across Nairobi, public hospitals are slowly turning into waiting rooms with no end in sight. The Union have raised nineteen policy issues that relate to pay increases, better benefits, deployment to public hospitals and safer working conditions.


Many of these issues are not new. They stem back to the Collective Bargaining Agreement reached between the union and national, county governments and other stakeholders after the Lipa Kama Tender one hundred day strike in 2017. Following several attempts to get the Government to implement the 2017 CBA last year, the union has downed its tools, and the strike is beginning to bite.


The Kenya Medical Association have challenged the abrupt introduction of mandatory e-TIMS arguing that introducing digital registration and receipting will violate the right to privacy for their patients. Under the new system, the Government of Kenya will be able to access health information about patients and all transactions will be taxed.


Private health providers across rural Kenya through their association, the Rural Private Hospitals Association of Kenya, have placed a ban on patient’s use of their National Health Insurance Fund cards. They allege that NHIF owe them over Sh 1 billion to date and they have to cut their losses. The decision threatens millions. Many patients have faithfully contributed and now find themselves without medical cover when they need it most.


Government attempts to reform national insurance has yielded one of the most ambitious health policy reforms in decades. A cornerstone of the Bottom-Up Economic Transformation Agenda the Social Health Insurance Fund (SHIF) aims to provide comprehensive health education for all Kenyans. This week, lawyers argued for their clients that the three new SHIF-related laws were unconstitutional, lacked mandatory regulatory and budgetary consideration and had not been subjected to sufficient public participation given their all-binding mandatory nature.


President Ruto reminded us this week that we will all, one day stand before God. We will be asked, did we feed the hungry, heal the sick and roof the homeless? The questions are not just biblical and important when we die. They are also classic human rights theory for how we must live. Government officers have an obligation to find policy and budgetary solutions to those, society and the economy have exploited and discarded.


In this context, the absence of senior officials from the Health Ministry, Treasury, Public Service Commission, and the Council of Governors at the begging of the week was deeply worrying. Precious days were lost and the potential for a quick settlement delayed for several hours. It seems to have taken the Chief of Staff and Head of the Public Service Republic of Kenya to rally the Government side.


Public comments by Health Cabinet Secretary seemed to suggest she misunderstood the purpose and deployment strategy successive Governments have established for medical interns after graduating and qualifying to practise. The challenges faced by medical interns prominently featured in the Musyimi Taskforce report and the 2013 Collective Bargaining Agreement.


Most worrying are the increasing number of open threats of dismissals and arrests. If the Kenyan state can learn anything from the experiences of Dr. Odhiambo Olel in the 1960s, Dr. Ouma Oluga in the 2010s and more recently the unlawful police assault of Dr. Davji Bhimji, it is, state aggression only unifies and toughens the union. State Officers at county and national levels must desist from threats and come to the table with open minds. They must also resist short-term promises and seek a sustainable solution to what bedevils the right to health.

With doctors also raising the alarm of a new coronavirus JN.1 strain attacking our respiratory systems, there is an additional urgency to resolve these cirrent four challenges. We know from the last decade, what is ignored, festers, and grows with an intensity that is costly to us all.

This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard,  23 March 2024


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