With the impending devolution of healthcare management functions to the counties anxiety looms over the levels of preparedness for such an undertaking in all the counties. In an earlier post a number of challenges were identified, including uneven inter-county levels of development- unequal distribution of resources for health especially the distribution of health facilities, human resources, and poorly developed communication infrastructure. Also unevenly distributed across the country are poverty levels, the effect of which is to make health services largely inaccessible to a large chunk of the population that cannot afford the high out-of-pocket expenditures, which prevail in Kenya. This post reviews the extent to which the decentralisation policy of the Ministry of Health (MOH) has been implemented and how this may impact on assumption of fully devolved management of health services by county governments.
The term “decentralisation” has been used to signify a variety of reforms characterized by the transfer of fiscal, administrative, and/or political authority for planning, management, or service delivery from the central MOH to alternate institutions. “Devolution” is a category of decentralisation; it implies the ceding of sectoral functions and resources to autonomous local governments, which in some measure take responsibility for service delivery, administration, and finance.
Despite decades of intention to decentralise, Kenya’s health care system has remained largely centralised with decisions taken at MOH headquarters from where they are conveyed top-down through the provincial medical officers to the district level. Centralised functions at the headquarters include policy formulation, coordinating activities of all health players (government and non-governmental organizations), initiating and managing implementation of policy changes on various issues including charging of user fees, and undertaking monitoring and evaluation of impact of policy changes at the district level.
Centralised decision making may have contributed to, among others, regional disparities in the distribution of health services, inequities in resource allocations, and unequal access to quality health services, resulting in the wide regional differentials in health indicators which successive demographic and health surveys (KDHS) have highlighted[i].
On paper, the MOH through the various health sector strategic plans has expressed commitment to decentralisation intended to provide increased authority for decision making, resource allocation, and management of health care to the district and facility levels. For example, in 1992 the MOH established the District Health Management Teams (DHMTs) and the District Health Management Boards (DHMBs), which were charged with managing public health services at the district level. Together, the DHMT and DHMB are supposed to provide management and supervisory support to lower level health facilities (sub-district hospitals, health centres, and dispensaries).However, despite the fact that these bodies coordinate health activities in the district and may develop plans for spending cost sharing funds, the final decisions on budgets and resource allocation is retained at the central level. Lack of funds and transport are the most commonly cited reasons for failure by DHMTs to meet their supervision targets despite the near universal existence of documented supervision plans[ii]. Budgetary remittances to the districts have neither been regular nor timely.
Health care under devolved system of governance:
The Constitution of Kenya (2010) has assigned the larger portion of delivery of health services to Counties, the exception being the National Referral Services. This implies that Counties should bear overall responsibilities for planning, financing, coordinating delivery and monitoring of health services toward the fulfilment of right to ‘the highest attainable standard of health’.
For many Kenyans, devolution is looked upon as the answer to the persistent regional disparities in the distribution of health services and inequities in resource allocations. However, much as that is an ideal goal; its realisation may not be immediate, especially because of the current varied levels of preparedness within the counties. Some counties starting at a relative disadvantage will take time to build up their capacity and ability to use devolved resources well, which may lead to even wider disparities. Such counties will require particular assistance to catch-up. In the long run, success of devolution will depend on availability of resources (both financial and human) for counties to carry out their assigned functions, and their empowerment to use resources effectively.
The draft Kenya Health Sector Strategic & Investment Plan[iii](KHSSP)July 2012 – June 2018 proposes a three-pronged framework for overall health sector leadership, i.e: Partnership, Governance and Stewardship- which taken together should address the health agenda towards the fulfillment of the right to health.
The strategic plan proposes that within the counties, the stewardship responsibilities for health services will be exercised at three levels: the National Directorates for Health, the County health management teams, and County Health facility management teams. However, scrutiny of the prescribed responsibilities, functions and roles[iv] of these bodies portrays a continuation of dominance by MOH headquarters in matters to do with policy formulation, planning and priority setting, which leaves the county management teams to be purely concerned with programme implementation (under close supervision from above). This is unfortunate since it perpetuates central planning which has not always taken into consideration the peculiarities of our country’s diversity, with consequent wide disparities in health status.
Planning at the county level should enable better definition of local priorities and design of innovative models of service delivery that adapt to local conditions, e.g. serving pastoralist communities in arid and semi-arid areas. It also can improve quality and legitimacy owing to user participation in decision making; and greater equity through distribution of resources toward traditionally marginal regions and groups. Local hiring of service providers can improve staffing levels and appropriate deployment, especially in rural health facilities.
One major challenge facing proposed county health services is the serious shortage of resources, human and material, especially due to financial limitations. Currently the public health sector is seriously under-funded and is generally operating on shoe-string budgets, inadequate infrastructure and lack of essential supplies. Although better distribution and deployment of health personnel may somewhat alleviate current acute shortages in some counties, still more will be needed. Many counties will especially require strengthening in health planning and monitoring.
[i] Ministry of Health (MOH) 2006 Reversing the trends, The Second National Health Sector Strategic Plan of Kenya: Annual Operational Plan 2 2006/07. Nairobi, Kenya.
[ii] Ndavi, P.M., S. Ogola, P.M. Kizito, and K. Johnson. 2009. Decentralizing Kenya’s Health Management System: An Evaluation. Kenya Working Papers No. 1. Calverton, Maryland, USA: Macro International Inc.
[iii] Ministry of Medical Services and Ministry of Public Health & Sanitation KENYA HEALTH SECTOR STRATEGIC & INVESTMENT PLAN (KHSSP) July 2012 – June 2018: Transforming Health: Accelerating attainment of Health Goals
[iv] National Directorates for Health: provide overall direction- policy formulation, national strategic planning, priority setting, budgeting and resource mobilization, regulating, setting standards, formulating guidelines, monitoring and evaluation, and provision of technical backup to the county level. County Health Management Teams: Provide Strategic and operational leadership and stewardship for overall health management in the County, including resource mobilization, creation of linkages with national level referral health services, monitoring and evaluation, coordination and collaboration with State and Non state Stakeholders at the County level health services. County Health Facility Management Teams: Develop and implement facility health plans for levels 1–3 health care services; coordinate and collaborate with stakeholders through County Health Stakeholder Forums; undertake in-service training and capacity building; and supervision, monitoring and evaluation.