The Indian healthcare system is rife with corruption, and much of this corruption arises from the way that healthcare is regulated (or not). Because healthcare in India is inexpensive, at least by Western standards, private health insurance is relatively rare, and a sizeable majority of total health expenditures are made out-of-pocket. With little regulation, and without much meaningful price negotiation by either the government or private insurance companies, India’s healthcare system has become a vast “network of unregulated private sector hospitals.” This lack of regulation, coupled with intense competition, encourages doctors (who are often under substantial financial pressure) “to enter a happy axis of corruption where they routinely prescribe expensive investigations and perform operations which a patient might not need” in order to increase their profit margins. Doctors have also been known to take bribes from other healthcare entities in return for patient referrals, or to accept kickbacks from pharmaceutical companies disguised as “professional fees” in order to outcompete other private hospitals. As a recent WHO-Eurohealth publication concluded, health sector corruption in India includes not only “collusion, bribes and kickbacks in procurement which may result in overpayment for goods and contracted services” and doctors’ willingness to accept “payments in exchange for special privileges or treatment,” but also “distort[ions in] medical professionals’ prescribing practices.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has sought to address some of these concerns through a healthcare initiative known as PMJAY. The main objective of this program is to increase access to healthcare for the poorest 50% of the population—approximately 700 million people—who are given biometric government “smart cards” to purchase eligible inpatient healthcare services at both private and public hospitals. But while PMJAY is principally designed as a system for subsidizing healthcare for low-income people, it also serves as an anticorruption tool by bringing under government oversight millions of previously unregulated out-of-pocket healthcare transactions, requiring enrolled physicians to acquire digital pre-authorization before administering nonemergency services to PMJAY beneficiaries, and giving the government more power to negotiate with private hospitals participating in the program over healthcare rates. PMJAY’s computerized billing platform also serves a surprising secondary role as an AI-powered “comprehensive fraud analytics solution” for millions of transactions that were previously beyond the government’s reach. The program has already detected over 18,000 fraudulent insurance transactions, leading to penalties against hundreds of healthcare entities so far. The government has even made a list of “corrupt” hospitals available on the PMJAY website. Given PMJAY’s early successes, the government should expand the program. Not only would this increase healthcare access in general—a worthy aim in its own right—but it would further reduce corruption in the healthcare system. This is more easily said than done, however, in light of several practical obstacles to further expansions.