By Chencho Dema 

PUNAKHA — Inspired by the significant financial burden on the government for medical referrals to India, Sonam Dorji, chairman of dzongkhag tshogdu (DT)  and gup of the Kabjisa Gewog in Punakha, returned from Kolkata with a radical idea. He proposed collecting voluntary health contributions from the 11 gewogs of Punakha to establish a health trust fund, setting an example for the entire nation.

Speaking to Kuensel, Sonam Dorji expressed his concern about the government’s escalating expenditure on medical remittances, particularly for patients referred to India. “During my recent trip to Kolkata for my family member’s treatment, I witnessed the immense amount of money being spent on referral of patients. There were two planes departing every week.”

This experience prompted Dorji to contemplate the sustainability of the government’s healthcare provisions. “That’s when I conceived the idea of collecting funds from the people of Punakha’s 11 gewogs voluntarily. When I discussed the matter during my visit to the gewogs, including the thromde, I was astounded by the overwhelming support and agreement from almost everyone.”

The proposal was deliberated in the third DT of the third local government. Some gups raised concerns about whether the collected funds would remain with the dzongkhag or be added to the Bhutan Health Trust Fund, while a few expressed hesitation towards the idea.

Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji, an observer at the meeting, emphasised the benefits for all citizens, highlighting that while civil servants contribute to the health fund, everyone reaps the rewards.

Minister further stated that this initiative would serve as a precedent, leading to the evolution of healthcare services. Arguing against keeping the funds within the dzongkhag, he explained that a single referral case could cost millions.

Sonam Dorji embarked on a tour of the 11 gewogs of Punakha from April 21 to May 6 to introduce himself as the thrizin of DT and discussed the health contributions.

The plan has received wholehearted support from Tshering Penjor, the DT thrizin wom and Toedpisa Gup, who believes that contributing to the health fund is a means of serving and giving back to the nation. He encouraged others to follow this commendable example, stating, “It is not required for the individual who provided to benefit, but it is more than enough if his or her contribution might help others.”

Although the collection is expected to be an annual occurrence, the first round will commence this year.

DT Secretary Sonam Phuntsho said that contributing is voluntary, with no predetermined amount. Individuals may contribute based on their own discretion.

During a recent session of the National Assembly’s question hour, Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said that Bhutan spends billions annually on referral cases, primarily related to kidney transplantation, cancer treatment, neurological care, and heart-related ailments.

In the 2016-17 fiscal year, the hospital recorded the highest number of referrals, with 1,478 cases costing the government Nu 198.23 million. In 2018, approximately 900 patients were referred, and in 2019-20, over 280 patients were sent to Vellore and Kolkata in India.

Guwahati, Kolkata, and Madras remain the preferred destinations for Bhutanese patients seeking medical referrals.