Nurse Melifa Mphasa, age 43, listens to the pregnant belly of patient Modeste in the labor ward at Bwalia 'Bottom' Hospital in Lilongwe, Malawi. Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam
Half a million women die each year for lack of access to care during pregnancy or childbirth

World leaders announce free health care lifeline for millions

“Next steps will be to raise the missing funds, to ensure free care is extended to all those who need it, and to get doctors and nurses in place.”
Barbara Stocking
Chief Executive, Oxfam GB
Published: 23 September 2009

New York - Millions were thrown a lifeline at special session at the United Nations today, when world leaders unveiled a plan for free health care in poor countries.

Speaking at a high level event at the United Nations, UK Premier Gordon Brown announced support for free health services in Nepal, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Malawi and Burundi. For poor people, being unable to pay fees for health care is often lethal. Half a million women alone die each year because they do not have access to care during pregnancy and childbirth.

Oxfam Great Britain Chief Executive Barbara Stocking said: “Today’s announcement is a real turning point. Gordon Brown’s unequivocal statement that user fees are killing poor people is really heartening. Perhaps now we can stop this debate and all of us can get on with getting free heath care to all poor people."

Brown said new financing measures worth $5.3 billion would be given to support free health care, of which the UK will deliver 250 million pounds. The announcement is the culmination work by an international taskforce on innovative financing for health systems.

Said Stocking: “The money committed so far is still well short of the total $10bn needed by poor countries to ensure that no one is denied health care because they are too poor to pay. The Global Fund to Fight Aids Tuberculosis and Malaria also needs to be fully financed.

“Next steps will be to raise the missing funds, to ensure free care is extended to all those who need it, and to get doctors and nurses in place, along with easily accessible facilities and medicines.”

The UN meeting also saw heads of State from Ghana, Malawi, Nepal, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone commit to extending free health care.

Leonard Shang-Quartey, Convenor of Ghana’s ‘Essential Services Platform’ civil society coalition said: “The Ghanaian government took a bold step forward today in removing fees for pregnant women, the aged and children under 18. With almost half of all Ghanaians unregistered under the current health care insurance system, it is the poorest that face the choice of paying for health care or missing out.  This announcement is a lifeline for all children and pregnant women, and the government’s intention to reform the health insurance payment system is a much-needed step along the road to free health care for all.”

Malawi announced it would extend free health services through government and church run hospitals to reach 860,000 more people. Shenard Mazengera, Advocacy Manager for Oxfam in Malawi said: "This announcement will help to save the lives of many Malawians."

10 million more women will get access to free health care following today’s announcements. Said Stocking: “This lifeline also now needs to be extended to Mozambique and other countries where free health care is so desperately needed. No one should die because they can’t afford to pay.”