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COVID-19 pandemic has stepped up our preparedness to handle communicable diseases

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Dr Vipul Aggarwal, Deputy CEO, National Health Authority (NHA) shares details about various measures being implemented by the agency under Ayushman Bharat – Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (AB-PM JAY) to improve the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and ensure that Indian citizens have access to crucial healthcare services in these testing times, in an interview with Lakshmipriya Nair

With ascending COVID-19 cases in the country, how is NHA striving to enhance the country’s response to the pandemic?

COVID-19 has posed an unprecedented challenge to the healthcare machinery of the country. We, at NHA, have taken numerous measures to strengthen the fight against COVID-19. We have developed the packages for testing and treatment for COVID-19 for all the 22,000+ healthcare institutes associated with us including more than 10,000 private healthcare facilities. The testing is being done as per ICMR protocols and in empanelled laboratories upon referral from the empanelled hospital.

Apart from above, to strengthen the response against COVID19 as also to ensure there is adequate infrastructure available to take care of chronically ill non-COVID patients including those suffering from an illness like kidney disease, cancer etc., we have developed a fast-track hospital empanelment procedure through which more than 1500 new hospitals have been empanelled in the scheme during the past two-month period of which more than 1200 are from the private sector.

Additionally, we are proactively reaching out to high-risk beneficiaries to educate them on COVID-19 and the precautions they need to take to stay safe. We are also managing the national toll-free COVID helpline (#1075) and PMJAY helpline (#14555) through our network of around 700+ call centre executives spread across four cities. Our call centres are managing over 50,000 to 60,000 calls per day on topics related to COVID-19 as well as Ayushman Bharat PM-JAY.

NHA has been working to build better synergies with the private sector in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic. What has been the impact so far? What have been the big wins and the major challenges? 

For supplementing the efforts of the government in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, it becomes important that both public and private sector work hand-in-hand as the capacities of the public sector may not be adequate to fight this challenge alone. Also, with the lockdown slowly opening up, the cases are also expected to increase, at least in the immediate future. We will need to stay equipped with more beds and boosting the private sector involvement will help us strengthen the healthcare service delivery. NHA is working on getting more hospitals on board and as stated above we have been getting very encouraging responses from the private sector so far and I’m sure that with a united effort we will win this battle.

The pandemic has clearly highlighted that India’s poor and vulnerable population need better financial protection against diseases and disabilities. Please brief us on the major measures taken so far to improve accessibility to crucial services to the deserving in these critical times under AB-PMJAY?

Apart from announcing treatment and testing packages for COVID-19 and empanelling more hospitals and labs, Ayushman Bharat PM-JAY is working consistently to contain the spread and flatten the curve by spreading awareness and providing immediate consultation and diagnosis if necessary. NHA’s call centres have made over 7.8 lakh calls, reached out specifically to 3.8 lakh unique high-risk beneficiaries, of which 1300 beneficiaries have already consulted doctors. It is important to note that our call centres have even flagged 257 non-COVID health emergencies.

How have the processes to avail benefits under the AB-PMJAY been made easier and simpler?

Availing benefits under the scheme is very simple. All one needs to do is call #14555 (toll-free) and check if your name is enlisted. If it is, then you can go to any CSC or empanelled hospitals and get your e-card. Post this, all transactions with regard to availing benefits are cashless and paperless. A major highlight of the scheme is the feature of ‘portability’, so the beneficiary of one state can avail treatment from any empanelled hospital in any other state, anytime.

How is NHA leveraging technology to reach out and provide improved services to India’s citizens?

We are a data-driven scheme—every detail is documented and analysed. Whether it is policy design, beneficiary data, hospital network/empanelment, fraud control or COVID-19. All details/data are collected on a daily basis via multiple platforms that we have implemented.

Additionally, we closely monitor all ILI (influenza-like illnesses) and SARI (severe acute respiratory illnesses) cases and share information with the concerned authorities on a daily basis.

What is being done to ensure that more and more people are covered under AB-PMJAY and get proper care in these testing times?

We are constantly organising awareness drives across the country to enlighten individuals on the free treatment they can avail.  To ensure that the information about the scheme as well as COVID-19 testing and treatment under AB PM-JAY is available at the fingertips, we have launched ‘Ask Ayushman’ chatbot. Besides, #14555 is the easiest way to get information related to the scheme and to know about one’s entitlement.

Every crisis comes along with a lot of learnings. What have been the biggest learnings for India from this pandemic?

On one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed a serious challenge to the health infrastructure, it has also opened various new avenues of opportunities for us. This pandemic has tremendously stepped up our preparedness to handle communicable diseases. The infrastructure facilities have been upgraded and augmented manyfold. It has emphasised the potential and the need for teleconsultation and telemedicine in healthcare service delivery. Most importantly it has highlighted the need for change in lifestyle and importance of hygiene and personal care for all citizens, which shall go a long way in our fight against infectious diseases.

What is Ayushman Bharat doing to enable migrant workers in these times?

With migrant workers returning to their home states, there is an increase in demand for healthcare facilities. To address this, NHA is continuously working in tandem with States to empanel more hospitals, increase bed capacities, onboard testing labs and strengthen overall health infrastructure in these States.

Robust awareness campaigns are being implemented for migrant labourers and their families to spread awareness about the Ayushman Bharat PM-JAY Scheme, its portability feature and free COVID-19 testing and treatment packages that can be availed at any of the empanelled hospitals.

To ensure the smooth flow of e-card generation under the scheme even during the lockdown period, NHA has collaborated with the Ministry of Electronics and IT to leverage benefits of DigiLocker, through which all eligible Ayushman Bharat beneficiaries can access their PMJAY e-cards online without any hassle.

How are you anticipating the role of NHA in a post-COVID-19 scenario?

In the post-COVID-19 scenario, the country will be introduced to the ‘new normal’ in healthcare service delivery. There will be a strong inclination towards leveraging digital health innovations. NHA will undertake a twofold approach:

1) Exploring technological solutions to address the increasing demand in healthcare services and

2) Strengthening the existing healthcare infrastructure in the country through Ayushman Bharat PM-JAY scheme, which will benefit all the key stakeholders – beneficiaries, State implementation bodies, hospitals and insurers.

The focus will be on leveraging PPP models to develop new infrastructure in tier-2 and tier-3 cities, encouraging the process of innovations and utilising state of the art technologies to improve healthcare service delivery in post-COVID-19 times.

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