TBY talks to Ghassan Hasbani, Deputy Prime Minister & Minister of Public Health, on increasing insurance coverage, infrastructure, and drug manufacturing.

Ghassan Hasbani
Ghassan Hasbani is a Lebanese businessman and politician. He has been Lebanon's Minister of Public Health and simultaneously Deputy Prime Minister since December 2016. Hasbani is the former CEO of the international operations of Saudi Telecom Company from 2010-2012 and the former partner of the communication and technology practice of Booz & Company in the Middle East. He is currently the CEO of Graycoats, a leading management consultancy firm.

What have been the main initiatives taken so far since your appointment as Minister of Public Health?

It is important to make sure the sector is properly regulated. We are catching up with some regulations to ensure we have an advanced position when regulating the healthcare sector in general. On the legislative and regulative side, the government plays a key role, ensuring the high quality of services for which we just set out a new strategy. Within the next three years, we plan to introduce a comprehensive healthcare insurance structure and to make sure that every individual in Lebanon is covered one way or another, whether through the ministry or other organization. Many of those who are not insured as part of the security forces funds or the national fund do not have the means to afford private health insurance. Today, all those who do not have coverage and have no means to access hospital care can come to the ministry. There are also people who would like to have this coverage, but do not fit in this group of the poorest in the country. They also prefer to have some kind of a minimum level of coverage, and we need to offer that opportunity.

How is the ministry encouraging investment, and how would you characterize the importance of PPPs in Lebanon's health industry?

We are the most advanced healthcare market in terms of hospitalization coverage because we cover all private hospitals. The Syrian refugee crisis has put an extra load on the system and has increased occupancy significantly, but the UNHCR funds many of these operations and admissions. However, we have managed to reach a point with the World Bank where it has opened up the opportunity for Lebanon to access concession and financing facilities. Recently, the board of the World Bank approved a USD150 million package for the health sector, which is great news. This will help us to further improve the primary and public healthcare infrastructure to serve both the local population and refugees. And this infrastructure will remain in Lebanon once the refugees leave. In spite of the stress of the added population, the country managed to stay in the highest positions of public health in terms of disease control. Medical tourism is still a major industry in Lebanon, and we are looking forward to improve in that as well. The reputation of Lebanese physicians and the quality of services is fantastic, and people from the Middle East come to Lebanon for health, particularly from Iraq, Syria, and the Gulf. As we move forward, we have many institutions and medical centers in Lebanon that are specialized in medical tourism. We are working right now to better ties with them to create special packages for tourists.

Since Lebanon currently has a strong drug manufacturing system, what are your prospects of becoming a regional supplier of drugs?

Becoming a hub in the region will take work; we have a small local market, admittedly. Thus manufacturing for the local market itself might not be sufficient, unless we offer major incentives and force unbalanced competition. I am against being too skewed toward imbalanced competition because it is unhealthy for the economy. However, we are encouraging local manufacturing in many ways. First, we are tightening the controls on quality thus producing the best quality under European and US standards. Secondly, we are helping the government, at all levels, to open up new markets for the registration of Lebanese drugs. We are signing an agreement with Egypt, Russia, the EU, and Arab markets to make sure that Lebanese drugs have access to international markets, which reduces cost and kick starts the local economy. As the Ministry of Public Health, our main objective is to attain the highest quality healthcare and health outcomes. Therefore, we are working to open international markets to increase results, revenues, and ultimately efficiency.