New law to stop public officials going overseas for medical treatment

A new law seeking to prevent public officers from travelling overseas for medical treatment, unless officially agreed in advance, is awaiting President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s assent.

Most Nigerians who travel overseas for medical care are either well-off individuals, or government appointee and senior civil servants. The Nigerian Medical Association estimates that they spend over $500 million a year, an amount of foreign exchange that Nigeria cannot afford. Their preferred destination is India.

The proposed law also seeks to encourage Nigerian health professionals to remain in Nigeria. The Nigerian Medical Association list 65,000 doctors, but only 25,000 work in Nigeria, 40,000 work overseas.

Medical tourism is dealt with by Part V (section 46): “Without prejudice to the right of Nigerians to seek medical check-up, investigation or treatment anywhere within and outside Nigeria, no public officer of the government of the federation or any part thereof, shall be sponsored for medical check-up, investigation or treatment abroad at public expense, except in exceptional cases, on the recommendation and referral by the medical board and which recommendation or referral shall be duly approved by the minister or the commissioner of health of the state as the case may be”.

Most senior public officers enjoy overseas medical treatment as normal perks of office, so the country pays for their treatment. If the new law goes though, if these people want to go overseas, they will have to pay for it themselves. How much it could reduce outbound numbers is unclear, but as Nigeria is a key market for Indian hospitals, any substantial reduction could be serious.

The bill defines the roles of the Federal Ministry of Health, states ministries of health, local health authorities, ward health committees, village heads, as well as private health providers.

It establishes a National Health System. This will define and provide a framework for standards and regulation for all public and private providers of health services. It also seeks to promote a spirit of cooperation and shared responsibility among all providers of health services in the federation and any part thereof, so healthcare is dealt with nationally rather than locally.

The law provides for the establishment of the National Council on Health, and a Basic Health Care Provision Fund, both financed by the federal government. These in turn will increase the amount of free public healthcare to poorer Nigerians through the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS).

Among many other provisions it seeks to protect Nigerians: “ A health care provider, health worker or health establishment shall not refuse a person emergency medical treatment for any reason whatsoever”.

Other African countries are closely watching the proposed law, as if it is passed, and manages to stop anybody paid by the state from getting overseas medical treatment at state expense, they could copy and change the basis f medical tourism in Africa.