High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage - Part 1

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23-Sep-2019 04:15:03
Achieving universal health coverage by 2030 hinges on ‘bold national leadership’, Secretary-General tells General Assembly, as world leaders commit to declaration.

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World leaders gathering at the United Nations Headquarters today approved an action‑oriented political declaration on universal health coverage, committing themselves to achieving that objective by 2030.

By the terms of the declaration, which was forwarded to the General Assembly for formal adoption at a later date, world leaders reaffirmed the right of every human being, without distinction of any kind, to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, committing to accelerate efforts towards the achievement of universal health coverage.

“Shockingly, half the world’s people are still waiting to exercise that right, with serious consequences for us all,” with some 100 million people worldwide impoverished by catastrophic health‑care expenses, said United Nations Secretary‑General António Guterres in his opening remarks to the high‑level meeting, held under the theme of “Universal health coverage: Moving together to build a healthier world”.

The declaration approved today is the most comprehensive agreement ever reached on global health — a vision for universal health coverage by 2030, Mr. Guterres said, describing it as a “significant achievement” that will drive progress over the next decade on communicable diseases including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, while addressing non‑communicable disease and antimicrobial resistance through robust and resilient primary health‑care systems.

The United Nations stands ready to assist Member States in these endeavours, but “making universal health coverage a reality by 2030 depends first and foremost on bold national leadership,” he stressed.

Also addressing the opening segment of the meeting was Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, President of the seventy‑fourth session of the General Assembly, who said that genuine universal health care can only be realized through continued cooperation to improve infrastructure, especially for transport, allowing people to easily reach medical centres, and through seizing the opportunities created by technology advances and the information revolution. Indeed, he said, the old medical adage that prevention is better than cure holds true today and he called for continued investment in research to better equip countries in preventing disease.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director‑General of the World Health Organization, said that lack of access to affordable primary health care is a problem not only in low‑income countries, but also in high‑income ones, where cancer patients often choose death due to the financial disaster treatment would bring to their families. No one should have to make such a choice, he stressed, calling on countries to spend an additional 1 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) on primary health care and make a crucial shift to people‑centred quality services. Investing an additional $200 billion a year on scaling up such services across low‑ and middle‑income countries would potentially save 60 million lives and increase average life expectancy by 3.7 years by 2030. “Ultimately, health is a political choice,” he emphasized, adding that the declaration approved today is a powerful statement.

David R. Malpass, President of the World Bank Group, noted that the financing gap in the world’s 54 poorest countries — representing 1.5 billion people — is $176 billion annually. Closing it requires delivering good outcomes in four priority areas, including greater investments in affordable primary health care, engaging the private sector, supporting communities through education and job creation, and mobilization of domestic resources. If leaders commit to building smarter, data‑driven health systems, they can deliver quality health care and the World Bank will be a committed partner in those efforts, he added.

Gro Brundtland, eminent high‑level champion of universal health coverage and member of The Elders, said that health cannot be left to the free market, as only the wealthy will access services, while the poor are plunged further into poverty. She said that universal health coverage can only be achieved through public financing, recalling that 30 years ago, development agencies and Western Governments pressured developing countries into cutting health budgets and pushing the burden onto households. “This was a huge mistake,” she said, warning that the situation persists today in countries dominated by out‑of‑pocket payment models and calling on all States to “ban this practice immediately”.

In the ensuing panel discussion, titled “Universal Health Coverage as a Driver of Equity, Inclusive Development and Prosperity for All”, participants explored ways to operationalize the commitments made in the political declaration at the national level.

In another panel discussion, titled “Accelerating multi‑sectoral and multi‑stakeholder action and investments for achieving universal health coverage”, participants tackled questions such as how to effectively and efficiently finance universal health coverage strategies through additional domestic revenue, budgetary reallocation, multisectoral policies and partnerships.

In closing remarks, Mr. Ghebreyesus of the World Health Organization said history was made today, with Governments committing to a world in which no one misses out on quality health services simply because they lack access or cannot afford them. Noting that Japan began its journey to universal health coverage not when it was prosperous, but rather when it was weak after the Second World War, he said universal health coverage laid the foundation for it to become the economic powerhouse it is today. “No country can flourish if its people are trapped in cycles of diseases and poverty” he said.

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed hope that every country attains universal coverage, as health is the cornerstone of human security, describing that national ownership and health financing for the vulnerable are key to achieving such services for all.

Melinda Gates, Co-Chair and Trustee of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said that prioritizing primary health care requires hard trade-offs, urging Governments to regard primary health care as the most effective investment for their countries.

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