Validating the implementation of an indicator reporting policies and laws on free public maternal health-related services in the era of universal health coverage: A multi-country cross-sectional study

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Article (peer-reviewed)

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Background: The concept of universal health coverage (UHC) encompasses both access to essential health services and freedom from financial harm. The World Health Organization’s Maternal Newborn Child and Adolescent Health (MNCAH) Policy Survey collects data on policies that have the potential to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality. The indicator, “Are the following health services provided free of charge at point-of-use in the public sector for women of reproductive age?”, captures the free provision of 13 key categories of maternal health-related services, to measure the success of UHC implementation with respect to maternal health. However, it is unknown whether it provides a valid measure of the provision of free care. Therefore, this study compared free maternal healthcare laws and policies against actual practice in three countries. Methods and findings: We conducted a cross-sectional study in four districts/provinces in Argentina, Ghana, and India. We performed desk reviews to identify free care laws and policies at the country level and compared those with reports at the global level. We conducted exit interviews with women aged 15–49 years who used a component service or their accompanying persons, as well as with facility chief financial officers or billing administrators, to determine if women had out-of-pocket expenditures associated with accessing services. For designated free services, prevalence of expenditures at the service level for women and reports by financial officers of women ever having expenditures associated with services designated as free were computed. These three sources of data (desk review, surveys of women and administrators) were triangulated, and chi-square analysis was conducted to determine if charges were levied differentially by standard equity stratifiers. Designation of services as free matched what was reported in the MNCAH Policy Survey for Argentina and Ghana. In India, insecticide-treated bed nets and testing and treatment for syphilis were only designated as free for selected populations, differing from the WHO MNCAH Policy Survey. Among 1046, 923, and 1102 women and accompanying persons who were interviewed in Argentina, Ghana, and India, respectively, the highest prevalence of associated expenditures among women who received a component service in each setting was for cesarean section in Argentina (26%, 24/92); family planning in Ghana (78.4%, 69/88); and postnatal maternal care in India (94.4%, 85/90). The highest prevalence of women ever having out of pocket expenditures associated with accessing any free service reported by financial officers was 9.1% (2/22) in Argentina, 64.1% (93/145) in Ghana, and 29.7% (47/158) in India. Across the three countries, self-reports of out of pocket expenditures were significantly associated with district/province and educational status of women. Additionally, wealth quintile in Argentina and age in India were significantly associated with women reporting out of pocket expenditures. Conclusions: Free care laws were largely accurately reported in the global MNCAH policy database. Notably, we found that women absorbed both direct and indirect costs and made both formal and informal payments for services designated as free. Therefore, the policy indicator does not provide a valid reflection of UHC in the three settings.