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Int J Health Serv. 1997;27(2):359-79.

User fee policies to promote health service access for the poor: a wolf in sheep's clothing?

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  • 1London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, England.


An international survey of health service user fee and exemption policies in 26 low- and middle-income countries assessed whether user fee policies were supported by measures that protect the poor. In particular, it explored whether governments were introducing a package of supportive measures to promote service improvements that benefit disadvantaged groups and tackle differential ability to pay through an effective series of exemptions. The results show that many countries lack policies that promote access for disadvantaged groups within user fee systems and quality improvements such as revenue retention at the health care facility and expenditure guidelines for local managers. More significant policy failures were identified for exemptions: 27 percent of countries had no policy to exempt the poor; in contrast, health workers were exempted in 50 percent of countries. Even when an official policy to exempt the poor existed, there were numerous informational, administrative, economic, and political constraints to effective implementation of these exemptions. The authors argue that user fee policy should be developed more cautiously and in a more informed environment. Fees are likely to exacerbate existing inequities in health care financing unless exemptions policy can effectively reach those unable to pay.

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