India: Universal Healthcare Rollout Will Cost $26bn
A paramedic distributing free medicine provided by the government to patients inside a ward at the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital (RGGGH) in India's southern Chennai cityReuters

India's universal health plan that aims to provide guaranteed benefits to a sixth of the world's population will cost an estimated $26bn (£16bn) over the next four years, according to a senior health ministry official.

Under the National Health Assurance Mission, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's regime will provide all citizens with free drugs and diagnostic treatment, alongside insurance cover to treat serious ailments.

The proposed plan will be rolled out in phases from April 2015 and will cover the entire population by March 2019, C K Mishra, an additional secretary at the health ministry, told Reuters.

When the entire population is covered, it will cost an estimated $11.4bn (£7.1bn, €9.1bn) annually.

The World Bank and the UK's National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) will assist Indian authorities, providing technical assistance and advise on treatments the government should offer in the package, the bank said last week.

Despite rapid economic growth over the last two decades, the Indian government spends only about 1% of GDP on healthcare. By comparison, the UK, the US and China spend 9.5%, 8.3% and 3% respectively.

Healthcare infrastructure is grossly inadequate in the world's second-most populous nation; there are just nine hospital beds per 10,000 people in India against 41 per 10,000 in China, the world's most populous nation.

Thirty-nine million Indians are pushed into poverty every year because of "high out-of-pocket" medical costs, a 2011 study by medical journal Lancet showed.