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Why Economists Put Health First

Author(s): Kenneth J. Arrow, et al.

In an ideal world, everyone, everywhere, would access the health services they need without having to pay more than they could afford. But is “health for all” – also known as universal health coverage – really possible, not just in rich countries, but in the poorest countries, too?

From Project Syndicate:

In an ideal world, everyone, everywhere, would access the health services they need without having to pay more than they could afford. But is “health for all” – also known as universal health coverage – really possible, not just in rich countries, but in the poorest countries, too?

In short, yes. That’s why we joined hundreds of fellow economists in almost 50 countries to urge leaders to prioritize investments in universal health coverage. And the broader impetus behind this Economists’ Declaration, convened by The Rockefeller Foundation and now with more than 300 signatures, has placed global health and development at a historic crossroads.

In September, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a new set of 15-year global goals to guide the world’s efforts to end poverty, foster inclusive prosperity, and secure a healthy planet by 2030. As world leaders prepare to enact the most ambitious global to-do list yet – the Sustainable Development Goals will be launched on January 1 – deciding where to begin may seem a daunting task.

For economists, however, the answer is clear: The next chapter of development strategy should assign a high priority to better health – and must leave no one behind.

Reaching everyone with high-quality, essential health services without the threat of financial ruin is, first and foremost, the right thing to do. Health and survival are basic values to virtually every individual. Furthermore, unlike other valuable goods, such as food, they cannot be supplied without deliberate social policy.

The fact that “preventable deaths” remain common in low- and middle-income countries is a symptom of broken or under-resourced health-care delivery systems, not a lack of medical know-how. If we increase investments in health now, by 2030 we can be that much closer to a world in which no parent loses a child – and no child loses a parent – to preventable causes.

Universal health coverage is also smart. When people are healthy and financially stable, their economies are stronger and more prosperous. And, with benefits ten times greater than initial costs, investing in health first may ultimately pay for the rest of the new global development agenda.

So the question is not whether universal health coverage is valuable, but how to make it a reality. More than a hundred countries have taken steps down this path; in the process, they have revealed important opportunities and strategies to accelerate progress toward the goal of health for all. In particular, we believe that three areas – technology, incentives, and seemingly “non-health” investments – have the potential to advance universal health coverage.

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