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An Inflection Point for Universal Health Coverage

Michael Myers — Former Managing Director, Communications, Policy, and Advocacy, The Rockefeller Foundation

Last week was the World Health Assembly, an annual gathering where the world’s health leaders take stock of progress to improve health and wellbeing, and set the global health agenda for the year ahead. This year’s assembly was particularly newsworthy because it included the election of a new Director-General to lead the World Health Organization—more on that later. For me, it stands out because it marked an inflection point in the movement to achieve universal health coverage.

Universal health coverage (UHC) is an issue The Rockefeller Foundation cares about deeply.

For more than a century, the Foundation’s singular mission has been to promote the wellbeing of humanity throughout the world. We are focused particularly on poor and vulnerable communities, and on equity—which is why we have been such strong supporters of the global movement to deliver quality, affordable health coverage for all.

Much of the Foundation’s work in recent years, and the work of many of our partners, has been about getting universal health coverage on the global agenda. This included some noteworthy milestones, such as passing the UN Resolution on universal health coverage in 2012, securing the inclusion of UHC in the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 (with support from hundreds of leading economists and civil society leaders), and celebrating the first, second, and third UHC Day on December 12.

If the past five years have been about getting the world to agree that universal health coverage is the right goal, the next five will be about helping more people take concrete steps—at the community, national, and regional levels—to make it a reality. At this year’s World Health Assembly, we saw the global community come together in agreement that it’s time to do the hard work of ensuring that all people can access the health services they need without the risk of financial ruin.

We saw it in the results of the Director-General election. The winning candidate, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, campaigned on the promise to make universal health coverage his number one priority. Right after the election, he said, “all roads should lead to universal health coverage…it should be the center of gravity of our movement.” Dr. Tedros has a strong track record of expanding health access and strengthening health systems in Ethiopia. We are excited to see what he will accomplish by bringing the same conviction that everyone has the right to health to this new role.

We also saw it in the official launch of the International Health Partnership for UHC 2030 (UHC2030), a new multi-stakeholder initiative co-led by the World Health Organization and the World Bank Group. The partnership’s goal, outlined in its Joint Vision Paper, is to accelerate the movement for strong health systems for universal health coverage. Last week partners formalized their commitment to UHC2030 by signing a new Global Compact, paving the way for continued engagement in the UHC movement by countries of all income levels, multilaterals, donor agencies, philanthropic groups, and civil society.

The Rockefeller Foundation is proud to be a signatory of the Global Compact, and to support UHC2030.

Last year, we gave a grant of nearly $1.5 million to the initiative to strengthen political commitment and advocate for additional resources for universal health coverage. We did this because UHC2030 and its Global Compact lay the groundwork for what this movement needs now: broad, inclusive partnership; sustained engagement and advocacy; better coordination and collaboration;  greater measurement of progress; and more accountability to ensure that our collective efforts have the greatest possible impact.

Image: The International Health Partnership for UHC 2030 (UHC2030) | Photo credit: World Health Organization / Oliver O’Hanlon

As we redouble our efforts to support meaningful, lasting change at the country level, we must accelerate action across four interrelated policy areas. Capacity building, so that health systems have the people and tools they need. Service delivery, in order to ensure that every community has access to quality, integrated and people-centered care. Financing, to protect people from out-of-pocket expenditures and to help countries pay for universal health coverage, including nations feeling the pressures of aid transition. And governance, because as with any political goal rooted in human rights, universal health coverage requires active participation and buy-in from everyone—from heads of state to civil society.

These discussions will continue at the Universal Health Coverage Forum in Tokyo, Japan, on UHC Day this December. This event, just announced at the World Health Assembly, will bring together high-level policymakers and partners from around the world to showcase progress and share country breakthroughs. More importantly, the forum will continue to drive the collaborative approach that has gotten us this far, and the approach we’ll need to make sure every single person can access quality health services without financial hardship. It’s one more signal that the world is coming together to deliver on the promise of UHC.

We are looking forward to continuing this conversation in Tokyo and to supporting UHC2030 and our partners in this movement to turn “health for all” from something we agree is right into something that is real.

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