March 09, 2009

Why women must have separate health insurance

In the crowded by lanes of Varanasi, a 22-year-old mother of two trudges to the local health centre. Her energetic and demanding toddler skips along tugging at her sari while she tries to shield the tiny infant in her arms from the beating sun.

It has been days since she felt energetic. The early pregnancies, responsibilities of motherhood, lack of sleep and domestic chores have taken their toll. Her husband cannot accompany her as a day off from the weaver’s loom would mean a loss of wages they cannot afford.

The young mother shows the government issued insurance card at the healthcare centre and her tests and treatment are done free of charge. A blood test reveals that her haemoglobin has dipped to nine points. She needs diet supplements and iron tablets immediately.

The story is so common across India, The woman of the household distributes the limited income in managing a household, the health of the earning member (as his need to continue to work is critical) and the growing needs of children. Her own nutrition and healthcare are way down in her list of priorities.

Interestingly, the story in an upper middle class home in Mumbai sees just a slight variation. A 42-year-old mother of two is grappling with meeting the ever increasing demands of a stressful mid-management job, the long and tiring daily commute to work and the needs of her school going children.

A desk job, the wrong food during frequent travel and irregular sleep pattern have resulted in rapid and significant weight gain, leaving her susceptible to a range of lifestyle induced diseases. She certainly has the financial wherewithal to see a doctor, a nutritionist and join a gym, only if she had the time.

Having interacted with a cross section of women across socio-economic strata it is interesting to find a common thread, women tend to ignore their health and are most likely to visit a doctor only when the ailment has aggravated to the point of becoming unbearable.

Women need to acknowledge that they need to remain healthy in order to shoulder the responsibilities of looking after the family. Most women view preventive healthcare as an unnecessary expense or a luxury. As the quality of healthcare in India has improved over the years, the cost of healthcare has gone up significantly. And here is the need for a health insurance cover.

Women in urban areas face a higher risk of diseases like breast cancer. This is primarily due to the trend of late marriage and pregnancy. Older women ideally need to look at preventive measures like testing for breast and cervical cancer, nutritional calcium supplements to guard against osteoporosis, hormonal balance testing and others. Women have more complex health needs than men.

Women are also at a much greater risk for diseases like rheumatoid arthritis which require ongoing treatment or surgery. Due to cost reasons,

women who are younger and low-income are particularly at risk for being uninsured.

The Indian government has taken the initiative in introducing schemes for women in rural areas like the Swayamshakti scheme, the Handloom Weavers’ scheme or the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) for people below the poverty line.

However, most urban women do not qualify for public programs. Health insurance covers for women are essential for these very reasons. Women are less likely to be eligible to participate in their employer’s health plan due to the fact that women are more likely to work part time, have lower incomes and rely more on spousal coverage.

Health insurance is a key element in health care accessibility for women, as women with coverage are more likely to avail of primary and specialty health care services. Today, there is a variety of health insurance products available in the market. Besides, these products are easily available at price points which are affordable..

With a forward looking regulatory body like IRDA, the industry is likely to see further innovation in product development leading to women specific products specifically addressing their healthcare needs. These factors will contribute to a rise in women opting for health insurance.

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