Dr Timothy Olweny: NHIF critic picked to wipe the state insurer's mess


Dr Timothy Olweny was last week picked by President William Ruto to chair the board of the new Social Health Authority. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Dr Timothy Olweny will forever be grateful to his late father for preparing him on how to handle adversity, tragedy and failure, he told a group of guests in one of the quarterly Engage talks.

Now, Dr Olweny who was last week picked by President William Ruto to chair the board of the new Social Health Authority, will need to draw a lot of these lessons for his task ahead.

The predecessor of the Social Health Insurance Fund (SHIF) -- the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF) has more than just a bad name among Kenyans when it comes to corruption and service delivery. A lot of workers, who are still smarting from being hit with new taxes such as the Housing Levy, feel the new compulsory contribution for health insurance will make their lives unbearable.

Although the new rate is yet to be revealed, the State floated charging salaried workers a monthly rate of 2.75 percent of their gross pay.

Already, the Health Cabinet Secretary Susan Nakhumicha has threatened those who fail to register with SHIF with dire consequences including not receiving government services.

Add to the reputation of such funds--including the NHIF that is being replaced--that have been seen as looting kitties, Dr Olweny has been plunged into a perfect broth of tragedy, adversity and failure.

As the secretary general of the Kenya Association of Private Hospitals, Dr Olweny occasionally had his fair share of fights with the management of NHIF. He would push back whenever he felt that it was taking advantage of some of its members.

That feisty spirit must have endeared him to the Kenya Kwanza team, led by the then Deputy President Dr William Ruto. The outspoken medical doctor comes across as someone who understands the mess at NHIF, at least going by the interviews he has given in the past. But could the critic clean up the mess?

Dr Olweny, who runs a Nakuru-based private hospital known as Evans Sunrise Medical Centre, will be integral to actualising Ruto's dream of ensuring every Kenyan has access to essential healthcare, or what is popularly known as universal healthcare care (UHC).

Together with his five-member board, Dr Olweny's key performance index (KPI) for the next three years will be rolling out a robust social insurance fund that is better than the rickety NHIF infamous for being a cash cow for individuals with itching hands.

Other members of the five-member board include the outspoken Secretary General of the Central Organisation of Trade Union Francis Atwoli, Zakayo Gichuki and Jacinta Mutegi.

Also on the Board will be the principal secretaries for National Treasury and Health.

Juggling between the interests of the State, beneficiaries and medical service providers, including hospitals and clinics will not be easy. Even tougher will be navigating the treacherous political minefield.

It is not so much his medical background that will give him an edge, but his managerial experience and understanding of health economics and health policy.

Can his board, for example, assuage employees incensed by the higher contributions, that contributions to SHIF are all they need to access quality healthcare in any medical service provider?

The Act does not envisage the end of private insurance. Just as the case presently, the two, public and private insurance, will run concurrently.

It is not enough for the chairperson or board member to have academic qualifications and experience in medicine, the Social Insurance Act, of 2023 also requires them to have over 10 years of experience in data science, information technology, health governance, health administration, health policy, finance or economics.

Five of these 10 years shall be at the managerial level.

But Dr Olweny believes he has what it takes to make the Authority outperform NHIF. At the core of his job is making sure that beneficiaries get treated irrespective of their financial status. His qualifications as a doctor with a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery from the University of Nairobi solve part of this problem. Management of risk is the other.

Should over 18 million Kenyans being targeted for the contribution trust his leadership to spread the risk wide enough to enable beneficiaries who need dialysis from private hospitals to get the services?

And how will the new board address the incorrigible problem of abuse of such Funds by beneficiaries?

But Dr Olweny says he also has leadership certificates and is currently undertaking a Master of Business Administration from the Strathmore Business School. His career, he says on his LinkedIn account, spans over 25 years in the public, private, and not-for-profit health sectors.

He adds that over the years he has interacted with the Ministry of Health, its regulatory bodies, semi-autonomous government agencies, parastatals, and the legislative arms of the Kenyan government.

"This interaction has shaped my understanding of the demand and supply ends of the Kenyan Healthcare system...and implementation shortcomings that hinder the realisation of Kenya’s national health goals, policies, and development objectives," says Dr Olweny.

His team has already had a bumpy start. The Board is yet to hire a chief executive officer of the Authority. It has also not announced the rates that beneficiaries will be charged, yet the Health Cabinet Secretary has already gazetted November 22 as the effective date of the Social Insurance Health.

But in what would appear as preempting the decision by Dr Olweny's team, President Ruto has been quoted before saying that permanent employees will be deducted 2.75 percent of their gross salary for the service while those in the informal sector will pay monthly premiums of Sh500.

Will Dr Olweny's role be to rubber-stamp rates set by politicians or will the Cabinet Secretary for Health, in consultation with the Board, independently prescribe tariffs as required by the Act?

Dr Olweny declined to be interviewed for this article. But he must know that he is perhaps one of the men who will be held responsible for the success or failure of Kenya's most ambitious universal health care plan yet.

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