Minister of Health, Donville Inniss, addressing participants of the conference. (R. Holder/PAHO)

Regional health care policy makers and planners participating in a high-level meeting on universal health care, were today challenged by Health Minister, Donville Inniss, to move the topic "off the agenda and into the realm of action".

He made this appeal while giving the keynote address at a two-day conference organised by the Pan-American Health Organisation and the Ministry of Health at the Crane Resort in St. Philip.

Mr. Inniss urged the senior health officials, including St. Maarten’s Minister of Public Health, Social Development and Labour, V.H. Cornelius de Weever, and Chief Medical Officers of Health and Permanent Secretaries in the various Ministries of Health across the Caribbean, to find sustainable methods to ensure the provision of universal access to healthcare for the region. ??

"Our demographics, epidemiological profile, public finances and political will are key factors in determining our success in achieving universal health coverage in the Caribbean. As policy makers and as managers, we must be very clear as to the package of services that can be contained within a universal health package and equally clear as to how we can sustain this basket of services," he noted.

The "extensive and extended costs" associated in treating and managing diabetes, cardiovascular, respiratory and hypertension-related illnesses have taken a toll on the finances available for health care within our region. The challenging financial situation, the Health Minister pointed out, was compounded by the fact that the region was becoming an aging population.??

"The impact on our health systems is obvious when all indications are that individuals generate greater health-related costs at the end of life than at any other point in their life span. International studies have shown that Canadians use more than 50 per cent of their lifetime health expenses after age 65; in the UK, elderly patients can cost five times more than those under 65 and in Germany, health care costs for those 65 to 85 are at least twice as high as the German national average. We in the Caribbean must be in similar situations," he noted.

Mr. Inniss, however, cautioned that universal health care would not fit into a "one-size-fits-all concept", adding:?? "Nor does it imply coverage for all people for everything. Universal health care can be determined by three critical dimensions: who is covered, what services are covered, and how much of the cost is covered."

Political will, improved efficiencies, the use of modern technology, a focus on the preventative aspects of healthcare, the sharing of knowledge and expertise and regulatory reviews, were, to his mind, critical solutions to building strong health care systems in the region.??

One other area of great concern to Minister Inniss was the need for greater cooperation at the regional level. He said: "It is time that we build health centres of excellence in appropriate islands. Here in Barbados we shall be shortly opening a state-of-the-art ophthalmology centre in the refurbished Lions Eye Care Centre Building at the QEH. I have tasked management at the QEH to make this the referral centre of choice

for the region. Why should you send your eye patients to the USA when we will soon have the staff and facilities here to meet the demand? Likewise, we are making strides on cancer management and I will soon be announcing some initiatives in this area.

"We don’t have to build and maintain facilities on each island for each major illness. We are happy to send our patients to other Caribbean islands for care. I urge you to let fundamental business principles – especially in terms of economies of scale -guide our actions and decisions," Mr. Inniss remarked.

PAHO/WHO Representative in the Office of Eastern Caribbean Coordination, Dr. Merle Lewis, also put on record her hope that at the end of the two-day seminar, Caribbean states would be more energised to take meaningful action and re-commit to the challenging task of providing enhanced access to quality and affordable health care.

"While we must deliberate and identify those problems that affect our health systems and we must define the challenges that we face in responding to the health needs of our people, it is high time that we boldly direct most of our efforts to implementation and in making the required changes that will ultimately improve the quality of life of the people whom we serve," she said.??????


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