Nobel Peace Prize-winning economist Muhammad Yunus founded Grameen Bank, revolutionizing the fight against poverty by handing out “micro” loans of less than $30 to Bangladeshi women during the mid 1970s. He went on to spread microfinance around the world, including to Queen’s, New York, where the flagship Grameen America office serves 12,000 women.
Now, he’s piloting a breakthrough health program aimed at dramatically cutting costs while improving the health of those borrowers in Queens. It’s a tall order, given that these women are mainly immigrants, single working mothers, and living on $20,000 a year or less.
What’s more, the program is designed to become self-sustaining. The borrowers will pay for some of the services from the start. Over time, their payments will cover more of the costs. That, Yunus argues, is the only way programs for the poor can be long lasting and deliver the quality of service people want. Even the wealthiest nations, Yunus says, are starting to realize that their “free” health systems are still too expensive to pay for.
Healthcare insiders will be incredulous. How in the world will the priciest healthcare system serve people living below poverty without relying mainly on charity? Yunus answers that question, and explains why he’s going into health care in the first place, in a recent Financial Times op-ed [i].
In his work with the world’s poor, Yunus has been continually rankled by the fact that health care costs are such a burden to so many and are continually rising. For the poor, health costs are an especially serious threat, because even small bills can cause financial ruin. To someone living on $25 per day, for example, a $300 prescription represents weeks of food and transportation.