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People expect their health systems to be equitable. The roots of health inequities lie in social conditions outside the health system’s direct control. These root causes have to be tackled through intersectoral and cross-government action. At the same time, the health sector can take significant action to advance health equity internally. The basis for this is the set of reforms that aims at moving towards universal coverage, i.e. towards universal access to health services with social health protection. Health inequities also find their roots in the way health systems exclude people, such as inequities in availability, access, quality and burden of payment, and even in the way clinical practice is conducted.
The fundamental step a country can take to promote health equity is to move towards universal coverage: universal access to the full range of personal and non-personal health services required, with social health protection. The technical challenge of moving towards universal coverage is to expand coverage in three ways (see figure).:
- The breadth of coverage – the proportion of the population that enjoys social health protection – must expand progressively to encompass the uninsured, i.e. the population groups that lack access to services and/or social protection against the financial consequences of taking up health care.
- The depth of coverage must also grow, expanding the range of essential services that is necessary to address people’s health needs effectively, taking into account demand and expectations, and the resources society is willing and able to allocate to health. The determination of the corresponding “essential package” of benefits can play a key role here, provided the process is conducted appropriately.
- The height of coverage, i.e. the portion of health care costs covered through pooling and prepayment mechanisms, must also rise, diminishing reliance on out-of-pocket copayment at the point of service delivery. Prepayment and pooling institutionalizes solidarity between the rich and the less well-off, and between the healthy and the sick. It lifts barriers to the uptake of services and reduces the risk that people will incur catastrophic expenses when they are sick. Finally, it provides the means to reinvest in the availability, range and quality of services.