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One way to achieve universal health coverage (UHC) in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) is the implementation of health insurance schemes. A robust and up to date overview of empirical evidence assessing and substantiating health equity impact of health insurance schemes among specific vulnerable populations in LMICs beyond the more common parameters, such as income level, is lacking. We fill this gap by conducting a systematic review of how social inclusion affects access to equitable health financing arrangements in LMIC.
We searched 11 databases to identify peer-reviewed studies published in English between January 1995 and January 2018 that addressed the enrolment and impact of health insurance in LMIC for the following vulnerable groups: female-headed households, children with special needs, older adults, youth, ethnic minorities, migrants, and those with a disability or chronic illness. We assessed health insurance enrolment patterns of these population groups and its impact on health care utilization, financial protection, health outcomes and quality of care.
The comprehensive database search resulted in 44 studies, in which chronically ill were mostly reported (67%), followed by older adults (33%). Scarce and inconsistent evidence is available for individuals with disabilities, female-headed households, ethnic minorities and displaced populations, and no studies were yielded reporting on youth or children with special needs. Enrolment rates seemed higher among chronically ill and mixed or insufficient results are observed for the other groups. Most studies reporting on health care utilization found an increase in health care utilization for insured individuals with a disability or chronic illness and older adults. In general, health insurance schemes seemed to prevent catastrophic health expenditures to a certain extent. However, reimbursements rates were very low and vulnerable individuals had increased out of pocket payments.
Despite a sizeable literature published on health insurance, there is a dearth of good quality evidence, especially on equity and the inclusion of specific vulnerable groups in LMIC. Evidence should be strengthened within health care reform to achieve UHC, by redefining and assessing vulnerability as a multidimensional process and the investigation of mechanisms that are more context specific.