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An exploratory study of the policy process and early implementation of the free NHIS coverage for pregnant women in Ghana

Sophie Witter1*, Bertha Garshong2 and Valéry Ridde34

Author Affiliations

1 FEMHealth project, Immpact, Institute of Applied Health Sciences, University of Aberdeen, Foresterhill, Aberdeen AB25 2ZD, UK

2 Research and Development Division, Ghana Health Services, Accra, Ghana

3 Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, Medical Faculty, University of Montréal, 3875, rue Saint-Urbain, Montréal QC, Canada

4 Centre de recherche du Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal, Montréal (CRCHUM), Montréal, Canada

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International Journal for Equity in Health 2013, 12:16  doi:10.1186/1475-9276-12-16

Published: 27 February 2013



Pregnant women were offered free access to health care through National Health Insurance (NHIS) membership in Ghana in 2008, in the latest phase of policy reforms to ensure universal access to maternal health care. During the same year, free membership was made available to all children (under-18). This article presents an exploratory qualitative analysis of how the policy of free maternal membership was developed and how it is being implemented.


The study was based on a review of existing literature – grey and published – and on a key informant interviews (n = 13) carried out in March-June 2012. The key informants included representatives of the key stakeholders in the health system and public administration, largely at national level but also including two districts.


The introduction of the new policy for pregnant women was seen as primarily a political initiative, with limited stakeholder consultation. No costing was done prior to introduction, and no additional funds provided to the NHIS to support the policy after the first year. Guidelines had been issued but beyond collecting numbers of women registered, no additional monitoring and evaluation have yet been put in place to monitor its implementation. Awareness of the under-18 s policy amongst informants was so low that this component had to be removed from the final study. Initial barriers to access, such as pregnancy tests, were cited, but many appear to have been resolved now. Providers are concerned about the workload related to services and claims management but have benefited from increased financial resources. Users still face informal charges, and are reported to have responded differentially, with rises in antenatal care and in urban areas highlighted. Policy sustainability is linked to the survival of the NHIS as a whole.


Ghana has to be congratulated for its persistence in trying to address financial barriers. However, many themes from previous evaluations of exemptions policies in Ghana have recurred in this study – particularly, the difficulties of getting timely reimbursement to facilities, of controlling charging of patients, and of reaching the poorest. This suggests that providing free care through a national health insurance system has not solved systemic weaknesses. The wider concerns about raising the quality of care, and ensuring that all supply-side and demand-side elements are in place to make the policy effective will also take a longer term and bigger commitment.

Maternal health; Exemptions; Ghana; Health insurance; Policy process; Implementation