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Syed Abdul Hamid

Health microinsurance (HMI) has been used around the globe since the early 1990s for financial risk protection against health shocks in poverty-stricken rural populations in low-income countries. However, there is much debate in the literature on its impact on financial risk protection. There is also no clear answer to the critical policy question about whether HMI is a viable route to provide healthcare to the people of the informal economy, especially in the rural areas. Findings show that HMI schemes are concentrated widely in the low-income countries, especially in South Asia (about 43%) and East Africa (about 25.4%). India accounts for 30% of HMI schemes. Bangladesh and Kenya also possess a good number of schemes. There is some evidence that HMI increases access to healthcare or utilization of healthcare. One set of the literature shows that HMI provides financial protection against the costs of illness to its enrollees by reducing out-of-pocket payments and/or catastrophic spending. On the contrary, a large body of literature with strong methodological rigor shows that HMI fails to provide financial protection against health shocks to its clients. Some of the studies in the latter group rather find that HMI contributes to the decline of financial risk protection. These findings seem to be logical as there is a high copayment and a lack of continuum of care in most cases. The findings also show that scale and dependence on subsidy are the major concerns. Low enrollment and low renewal are common concerns of the voluntary HMI schemes in South Asian countries. In addition, the declining trend of donor subsidies makes the HMI schemes supported by external donors more vulnerable. These challenges and constraints restrict the scale and profitability of HMI initiatives, especially those that are voluntary. Consequently, the existing organizations may cease HMI activities. Overall, although HMI can increase access to healthcare, it fails to provide financial risk protection against health shocks. The existing HMI practices in South Asia, especially in the HMIs owned by nongovernmental organizations and microfinance institutions, are not a viable route to provide healthcare to the rural population of the informal economy. However, HMI schemes may play some supportive role in implementation of a nationalized scheme, if there is one. There is also concern about the institutional viability of the HMI organizations (e.g., ownership and management efficiency). Future research may address this issue.


Important health system challenges in the east and southeast Asian countries/territories of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia exist. The most commonly adopted health system among these areas is social health insurance. The high-income, aging societies of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have adopted single-payer/single-pipe systems with a single uniform benefit package and a single fee schedule for paying providers for services included in the benefit package. All three have achieved universal coverage with relatively equitable access to affordable care. All grapple with overutilization, aging populations, and hospital-centric and curative-focused care that is ill-suited for addressing an increasing chronic disease burden. Rising patient expectations and demand for expensive technologies contribute to rising costs. Korea also faces comparatively poorer financial risk protection. China, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines have also adopted social health insurance, though not single-payer systems. China and Thailand have established noncontributory schemes, whereby the government heavily subsidizes poor and non-poor populations. General tax revenue is used to extend coverage to those outside formal-sector employment. Both countries use multiple, unintegrated schemes to cover their populations. Thailand has improved access to care and financial risk protection. While China has improved insurance coverage, financial risk protection gains have been limited due to low levels of service coverage, fee-for-service payment systems, poor gatekeeping, and the fee schedule that incentivizes overprescription of tests and medicine. Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines use contributory schemes. Government revenue provides insurance coverage for the poor, near-poor, and selected vulnerable populations; the rest of the population must contribute to enroll. Therefore, expanding insurance coverage to the informal sector has been a significant challenge. Instead of social health insurance, Hong Kong and Malaysia have two-tiered health systems where the public sector is financed by general tax revenue and the private sector is financed primarily by out-of-pocket payments and limited private insurance. There is universal access to care; free or subsidized, good-quality public-sector services provide financial risk protection. However, Hong Kong and Malaysia have fragmented delivery systems, weak primary care, budgetary strains, and inequitable access to private care (which may offer shorter wait times and better perceived quality). Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar’s health systems feature high out-of-pocket spending, low government investment in health, and reliance on external aid. User fees, low insurance coverage, unequal distribution of health services, and fragmented financing pose pressing challenges to achieving equitable access and adequate financial risk protection. These countries/territories are diverse in terms of demographics, epidemiological profiles, and stages of economic development, and thus they face different health system challenges and opportunities. This diversity also suggests that these nations/territories will utilize different types of health systems to achieve universal health coverage, whereby all people have equitable access to affordable, good-quality care with adequate financial risk protection.