A cursory look at the news gives the impression that Kenya is on the threshold of achieving universal healthcare. For most of last year, President Uhuru Kenyatta was launching the Universal Health Coverage pilot programmes in four counties namely; Kisumu, Nyeri, Isiolo and Machakos.
Virtually every county now has a referral hospital with modern diagnostic, curative and intensive care equipment. Rare surgeries, from the re-attachment of man’s severed foot in April last year to the reattachment of a boy’s manhood recently, have been successfully done in Kenya.
Ironically, these stories of hope sit side by side with tales of woes: People dying of treatable diseases such as malaria or diarrhea; a mother walking for several kilometres with a dead child just to make a notification at a police post; or the numerous cases of people detained in hospitals because they cannot clear medical bills.
The latest case of “medical prisoners”— that of a young father who ended up in court for trying to sneak his daughter out of the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) because he could not raise the Sh56,000 bill—is a symptom of a serious malaise affecting our health sector.
While Boniface Murage was lucky to get away with a suspended sentence and the bill paid by philanthropists, there are thousands like him languishing in hospital wards as bills continue to pile.
If there is one lesson to be learnt from the Murage case, is that despite the campaign to encourage Kenyans to join the national health insurer, the National Hospital Insurance Fund, many are still not insured, exposing them to situations like he found himself in.
There is need to double efforts to convince all Kenyans to enroll for NHIF cover, or any health insurer of choice. And this is where the political leadership should come in. Early last year, Meru Governor Kiraitu Murungi made a statement that some might have considered callous: “I will not attend harambees to clear medical bills. Join the NHIF.”
While philanthropic acts are good, Kiraitu’s approach is even better. Leaders should be in the forefront in sensitising citizens about options, such medical cover, that will free them from undue dependency.
Leaders also have the role of ensuring healthcare facilities under their jurisdiction are working and adequately staffed. The best hospitals with the most advanced equipment with no medical personnel — as is the case currently in most Kenyan public hospitals — cannot save lives.