The impact of reimbursed user fee exemption of health centre outpatient consultations for the poor in pluralistic health systems: lessons from a quasi-experiment in two rural health districts in Cambodia


Fees charged at the point of use are a barrier to the health services’ users, especially for the poorest. Two decades ago, Cambodia introduced the so-called health equity fund (HEF) strategy, a waiver scheme which enhances access to public health services for the poor without undermining the economic situation of facilities. Evidence suggests that hospital-based HEF effectively removed financial barriers and reduced out-of-pocket expenditures. There is less evidence on the effectiveness of the HEF when assistance is extended to the primary level of healthcare. This research explores the impact of a HEF extended to health centres in two rural health districts. Two household surveys and 16-month diary data allowed to assess the impact of the intervention on health-seeking behaviours and expenditure of poor households. Though HEF effectively removed user fees at public health facilities, health centre utilization of sick and poor people did not budge much in the intervention district; self-medication and private provider consultations remained the preferred health-seeking behaviours, by far, even if more expensive. Difference-in-difference estimates confirmed that HEF had a slight impact on health-seeking behaviours, but only for the subgroups of HEF beneficiaries living close to the health centre and ready to test their new entitlement. This research reminds on the importance of the context for the effectiveness of any policy: in a highly pluralistic health sector, waiving already low-user fees in public health centres may be insufficient to increase rapidly the use of those facilities and reduce catastrophic spending. In such context, apart from distance to health centres, perceived quality of services at the health centres, which was relatively low compared with other providers, also matters. Although the HEF scheme plays a role in improving perceived and objective quality of care, complementary means are to be deployed.

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