Vardhan has made strengthening the Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PMJAY), popularly known as ‘Ayushman Bharat’, a top priority during his second tenure as Health Minister. On his first day in office, the Minister said that “since Ayushman Bharat was implemented around 27 lakh people have availed the benefits under the scheme. However, still five states – Delhi, Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and West Bengal [have] not implemented the scheme.”
He went on to state that he would reach out to the leadership in these states to encourage them to do so and has commenced this by writing to the Chief Ministers of Delhi, Odisha, Telangana, and West Bengal. In his letter to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Dr Vardhan wrote “under your leadership, onboarding of Delhi under AB-PMJAY shall be highly beneficial for beneficiaries of the state as well as the overall AB-PMJAY scheme at the national level — and is, therefore, a win-win situation for all stakeholders.”
Dr Vardhan has reportedly personally spoken with Kejriwal, as well as Chief Ministers Naveen Patnaik of Odisha and Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal. He has pledged to these states support by the Centre in helping them to align their existing initiatives with the Government’s.
The holdout states have declined to implement Ayushman Bharat in favour of their existing health initiatives. Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain criticised Ayushman Bharat as being “merely on paper” and said “the central government has implemented it in other states but still, these patients are coming to Delhi government hospitals for treatment.
“Delhi has a population of over two crore and this scheme can benefit only ten lakh; what is the point of implementing it here? We are not going to implement the scheme, and will rather provide treatment to every patient visiting hospitals. We will not pick and choose.”
Earlier this year, an effort was made in the Delhi High Court to compel the Delhi government to launch Ayushman Bharat. This effort failed, with justices pointing out that the matter was a political matter in lieu of a legal one.
West Bengal has had a fraught relationship with the initiative. It was the first state to opt out of Ayushman Bharat following its announcement in February last year but later signed up. West Bengal was, in fact, one of six states where a partial rollout was initiated on Independence Day last year. Chief Minister Banerjee went on to reverse course again this year, over claims the Centre was unduly claiming credit for the success of the initiative.
On the other hand, Odisha has reportedly been receptive to the Centre’s missive and is reviewing the proposals. Ayushman Bharat CEO Dr Indu Bhushan met with the State Health Minister Naba Kishore Das and Chief Secretary A. P. Padhi and subsequently described the talks as “very positive.” Dr Bhushan said he was “hopeful” that Odisha would take steps to implement the initiative. Padhi said that more discussions are needed before a decision can be made.
It remains to be seen whether Dr Vardhan’s exhortation to the holdout states will bear fruit. Given the historic mandate afforded the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in this year’s Lok Sabha polls, there could be further pressure from the Centre for states to follow the government agenda when it comes to health. For Dr Vardhan, however, the matter is simpler.
“It is important that the benefits of Ayushman Bharat should reach all deprived and vulnerable people in the country,” he said. “I will make all efforts to convince the remaining states and UT to bring the benefits of the scheme to their people and ensure that no eligible person is deprived of these benefits.”