“Family planning means healthier moms and kids – and it's good for development too,” said Lindsay Morgan, a senior health analyst at Broad Branch Associates, a healthcare advocacy group. But any number of hurdles can keep women from accessing family planning services. Morgan spoke at a May 21 discussion about results-based financing (RBF) programs, which aim to address hurdles on both the supply and demand sides of the equation in developing countries by incentivizing the provision of a variety of quality services while removing barriers to access for women in need of those services.
Removing Barriers to Providing and Using Family Planning Services
Incentives in RBF programs can come in a variety of forms – like subsidies or fees paid to clinics or vouchers sold to women, said Morgan. In Burundi, for example, under a pilot program rolled out across three provinces in 2006, health facilities receive payments for each patient that uses a modern method of contraception. In 2009, the government and international partners began scaling up the program to a nationwide level. In addition to expanding the program’s geographic reach, the scale-up incorporated new payment criteria to better incentivize quality of care (as opposed to just quantity) and longer-lasting methods of contraception.
Since the RBF pilot began, maternal and child health indicators have improved. The number of children being fully immunized is up, as is contraceptive prevalence, said Morgan. Additionally, those immediate results can lead to a slew of additional benefits down the line. For instance, improving modern contraceptive prevalence is one of the most cost-effective interventions available for reducing maternal death, she said.
In nearby Kenya, the health ministry leads a voucher system across four districts and two Nairobi slums to help some of the country’s poorest women afford maternal healthcare, family planning, and gender-based violence services.
The program is “written into large policy documents [and] strategic pieces,” including Vision 2030, a long-term government-wide strategy document “unveiled in 2008 as a way to reach middle-income country status by 2030,” said Ben Bellows, a reproductive health associate at Population Council Kenya. The government’s emphasis on the voucher program as more than just a health initiative is an acknowledgment of the downstream impact that improved maternal and reproductive health can have on the country’s development, he said.
“An Equity Gap in Family Planning”
However, the fact that the voucher program is needed at all is evidence of “an equity gap in family planning,” Bellows said. Access to family planning services can be significantly skewed depending on a woman’s income level, he said, pointing to a recent article in The Lancet assessing health inequalities in 12 different maternal and child health services across 54 priority Millennium Development Goal countries.
The equity gap reflects “an interesting problem with development,” said Bellows: Though low-income countries are converging with higher income countries, in terms of economic growth rates and income levels “the benefits of growth aren’t being evenly distributed.” The Africa Progress Panel’s annual report, released last month, echoes that point, he said.
“Governments are failing to convert the rising tide of wealth into opportunities for their most marginalized citizens,” the report concludes, and “unequal access to health, education, water and sanitation is reinforcing wider inequalities.”
Kenya’s voucher system is designed to help shrink that gap. Among the poorest of the poor – those benefitting from the system – inequalities are dropping, even if on a broader scale, inequity still exists between poor and wealthy Kenyans. “We’re seeing lower inequalities of service in areas exposed to the voucher,” said Bellows.
“RBF supports progress on a path towards universal health coverage,” said Beverly Johnston, the senior policy advisor at USAID’s Office of Population and Reproductive Health. And within the context of family planning “the whole idea is to level the playing field” so that all contraceptive methods are equally readily available to the women seeking them.
“A Catalyst for Change” in Family Planning
In addition to addressing equal access concerns, RBF programs can serve as “a catalyst for change…to stimulate quality of care and quality of family planning counseling in particular,” said Johnston.
A commonly cited hurdle to better family planning access is social norms that support large family sizes or otherwise limit a woman’s ability to space or limit her pregnancies. Given community health workers’ unique roles within their communities – “often on the front lines…where many of these social taboos and barriers exist,” as Morgan described – simply strengthening their training, and in turn improving the quality of care that women receive, can help counter norms that might otherwise prohibit access to family planning.
As more women receive higher quality care, norms dissipate even further, said Morgan. “There is evidence that [quality of care] is strongly associated with a woman’s decision to choose a method to use, to continue to use it, and to recommend it to others.”
“Rights Are Tantamount”
One trap RBF programs need to be aware of is over-incentivizing expansion of coverage to the detriment of quality or individual women’s concerns about what makes sense for them, said Johnston.
“Rights are tantamount,” she said. In order to ensure that rights are upheld, programs must reflect and be sensitive to local histories and local needs – particularly given the fact that some countries have had “a history of coercive programs and policies.”
Ultimately, “we really look at RBF as just one tool,” said Johnston. “RBF is not for every place and every context,” and neither is family planning’s place in RBF programming.
As one tool of many, RBF programs are gaining prominence as a way to meet MDGs related to maternal and child health. Bellows sees RBF’s importance lasting long past that 2015 deadline, though.
“The high inequity that we witness across many low-income countries, and the ability of targeted mechanisms [like Kenya’s voucher program] to address that, suggest that this may be a kind of generalized solution,” he said. “Obviously it will be context specific in the way in which it is rolled out, but the strategy of incentivizing clients and providers suggests that there’s some sort of globalized solution that could be considered for this widespread challenge.”
Drafted by Katherine Diamond, edited by Schuyler Null.
- Former Senior Program Associate, Environmental Change and Security Program, Maternal Health Initiative