Today, the National Medical Commission Bill, 2019 was passed by Lok Sabha. It seeks to regulate medical education and practice in India. In 2017, a similar Bill had been introduced in Lok Sabha. It was examined by the Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare, which recommended several changes to the Bill. However, the 2017 Bill lapsed with the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha. In this post, we analyse the 2019 Bill.
How is medical education and practice regulated currently?
The Medical Council of India (MCI) is responsible for regulating medical education and practice. Over the years, there have been several issues with the functioning of the MCI with respect to its regulatory role, composition, allegations of corruption, and lack of accountability. For example, MCI is an elected body where its members are elected by medical practitioners themselves, i.e., the regulator is elected by the regulated. Experts have recommended nomination based constitution of the MCI instead of election, and separating the regulation of medical education and medical practice. They suggested that legislative changes should be brought in to overhaul the functioning of the MCI.
To meet this objective, the Bill repeals the Indian Medical Council Act, 1956 and dissolves the current MCI.
The 2019 Bill sets up the National Medical Commission (NMC) as an umbrella regulatory body with certain other bodies under it. The NMC will subsume the MCI and will regulate medical education and practice in India. Under the Bill, states will establish their respective State Medical Councils within three years. These Councils will have a role similar to the NMC, at the state level.
Functions of the NMC include: (i) laying down policies for regulating medical institutions and medical professionals, (ii) assessing the requirements of human resources and infrastructure in healthcare, (iii) ensuring compliance by the State Medical Councils with the regulations made under the Bill, and (iv) framing guidelines for determination of fee for up to 50% of the seats in the private medical institutions.
Who will be a part of the NMC?
The Bill replaces the MCI with the NMC, whose members will be nominated. The NMC will consist of 25 members, including: (i) Director Generals of the Directorate General of Health Services and the Indian Council of Medical Research, (ii) Director of any of the AIIMS, (iii) five members (part-time) to be elected by the registered medical practitioners, and (iv) six members appointed on rotational basis from amongst the nominees of the states in the Medical Advisory Council.
Of these 25 members, at least 15 (60%) are medical practitioners. The MCI has been noted to be non-diverse and consists mostly of doctors who look out for their own self-interest over public interest. In order to reduce the monopoly of doctors, it has been recommended by experts that the MCI should include diverse stakeholders such as public health experts, social scientists, and health economists. For example, in the United Kingdom, the General Medical Council which is responsible for regulating medical education and practice consists of 12 medical practitioners and 12 lay members (such as community health members, administrators from local government).
What are the regulatory bodies being set up under the NMC?
The Bill sets up four autonomous boards under the supervision of the NMC. Each board will consist of a President and four members (of which two members will be part-time), appointed by the central government (on the recommendation of a search committee). These bodies are:
How is the Bill changing the eligibility guidelines for doctors to practice medicine?
There will be a uniform National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test for admission to under-graduate and post-graduate super-speciality medical education in all medical institutions regulated under the Bill. Further, the Bill introduces a common final year undergraduate examination called the National Exit Test for students graduating from medical institutions to obtain the license for practice. This test will also serve as the basis for admission into post-graduate courses at medical institutions under this Bill. Foreign medical practitioners may be permitted temporary registration to practice in India.
However, the Bill does not specify the validity period of this license to practice. In other countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia, a license to practice needs to be periodically renewed. For example, in the UK the license has to be renewed every five years, and in Australia it has to renewed annually.
How will the issues of medical misconduct be addressed?
The State Medical Council will receive complaints relating to professional or ethical misconduct against a registered medical practitioner. If the medical practitioner is aggrieved of a decision of the State Medical Council, he may appeal to the Ethics and Medical Registration Board. If the medical practitioner is aggrieved of the decision of the Board, he can approach the NMC to appeal against the decision. It is unclear why the NMC is an appellate authority with regard to matters related to professional or ethical misconduct of medical practitioners.
It may be argued that disputes related to ethics and misconduct in medical practice may require judicial expertise. For example, in the UK, the regulator for medical education and practice – the General Medical Council (GMC) receives complaints with regard to ethical misconduct and is required to do an initial documentary investigation in the matter and then forwards the complaint to a Tribunal. This Tribunal is a judicial body independent of the GMC. The adjudication decision and final disciplinary action is decided by the Tribunal.
How does the Bill regulate community health providers?
As of January 2018, the doctor to population ratio in India was 1:1655 compared to the World Health Organisation standard of 1:1000. To fill in the gaps of availability of medical professionals, the Bill provides for the NMC to grant limited license to certain mid-level practitioners called community health providers, connected with the modern medical profession to practice medicine. These mid-level medical practitioners may prescribe specified medicines in primary and preventive healthcare. However, in any other cases, these practitioners may only prescribe medicine under the supervision of a registered medical practitioner.
This is similar to other countries where medical professionals other than doctors are allowed to prescribe allopathic medicine. For example, Nurse Practitioners in the USA provide a full range of primary, acute, and specialty health care services, including ordering and performing diagnostic tests, and prescribing medications. For this purpose, Nurse Practitioners must complete a master's or doctoral degree program, advanced clinical training, and obtain a national certification.
The Uttarakhand Assembly concluded a two-day session on November 30, 2022. The session was scheduled to be held over five days. In this post we look at the legislative business that was carried out in the Assembly, and the state of state legislatures.
13 Bills were introduced and passed within two days
As per the Session Agenda, a total of 19 Bills were listed for introduction in the span of two days. 13 of these were listed to be discussed and passed on the second day. These included the Uttarakhand Protection of Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (Amendment), Bill, 2022, and the Uttarakhand Anti-Littering and Anti-Spitting (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The Assembly had proposed to discuss and pass each Bill (barring two) within five minutes (see Figure 1). Two Bills were allocated 20 minutes each for discussion and passing - the Haridwar Universities Bill, 2022, and the Public Service (Horizontal Reservation for Women) Bill, 2022. As per news reports, the Assembly passed all 13 Bills within these two days (this excludes the Appropriation Bills). This raises the question on the amount of scrutiny that these Bills were subject to, and the quality of such laws when the legislature intends to pass them within mere minutes.
Figure 1: Excerpt of Uttarakhand Assembly's November 2022 Session Agenda
Law making requires deliberation, scrutiny
Our law-making institutions have several tools at their disposal to ensure that before a law is passed, it has been examined thoroughly on various aspects such as constitutionality, clarity, financial and technical capacity of the state to implement provisions, among others. The Ministry/Department piloting a Bill could share a draft of the Bill for public feedback (pre-legislative scrutiny). While Bills get introduced, members may raise issues on constitutionality of the proposed law. Once introduced, Bills could be sent to legislative committees for greater scrutiny. This allows legislators to deliberate upon individual provisions in depth, understand if there may be constitutional challenges or other issues with any provision. This also allows experts and affected stakeholders to weigh in on the provisions, highlight issues, and help strengthen the law.
However, when Bills are introduced and passed within mere minutes, it barely gives legislators the time to go through the provisions and mull over implications, issues, or ways to improve the law for affected parties. It also raises the question of what the intention of the legislature is when passing laws in a hurry without any discussion. Often, such poorly thought laws are also challenged in Courts.
For instance, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 in this session (five minutes had been allocated for the discussion and passing of the Bill). The 2022 Bill amends the 2018 Act which prohibits forceful religious conversions, and provides that conversion through allurement or marriage will be unlawful. The Bill has provisions such as requiring an additional notice to be sent to the District Magistrate (DM) for a conversion, and that reconversion to one’s immediate previous religion will not be considered a conversion. Some of these provisions seem similar to other laws that were passed by states and have been struck down by or have been challenged in Courts. For example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court while examining the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 noted that providing a notice to the DM for a conversion of religion violates the right to privacy as the right includes the right to remain silent. It extends that understanding to the right to decide on one’s faith. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 exempted people who reconvert to their original religion from giving a public notice of such conversion. The Himachal Pradesh High Court had struck down this provision as discriminatory and violative of the right to equality. The Court also noted that the right to change one’s belief cannot be taken away for maintaining public order.
Uttarakhand MLAs may not have had an opportunity to think about how issues flagged by Courts may be addressed in a law that regulates religious conversions.
Most other state Assemblies also pass Bills without adequate scrutiny
In 2021 44% states passed Bills on the day it was introduced or on the next day. Between January 2018 and September 2022, the Gujarat Assembly introduced 92 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills). 91 of these were passed in the same day as their introduction. In the 2022 Monsoon Session, the Goa Assembly passed 28 Bills in the span of two days. This is in addition to discussion and voting on budgetary allocation to various government departments.
Figure 2: Time taken by state legislatures to pass Bills in 2021
Note: The chart above does not include Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. A Bill is considered passed within a day if it was passed on the day of introduction or on the next day. For states with bicameral legislatures, bills have to be passed in both Houses. This has been taken into account in the above chart for five states having Legislative Councils, except Bihar (information was not available for Council).
Sources: Assembly websites, E-Gazette of various states and Right to Information requests; PRS.
Occasionally, the time actually spent deliberating upon a Bill is lesser than the allocated time. This may be due to disruptions in the House. The Himachal Pradesh Assembly provides data on the time actually spent discussing Bills. For example, in the August 2022 Session, it spent an average of 12 minutes to discuss and pass 10 Bills. However, the Uttarakhand Assembly allocated only five minutes to discuss each Bill in its November 2022 Session. This indicates the lack of intent of certain state legislatures to improve their functioning.
In the case of Parliament, a significant portion of scrutiny is also carried out by the Department Related Standing Committees, even when Parliament is not in session. In the 14th Lok Sabha (LS), 60% of the Bills introduced were sent to Committees for detailed examination, and in the 15th LS, 71% were sent. These figures have reduced recently – in the 16th LS 27% of the Bills were sent to Committees, and so far in the 17th LS, 13% have been sent. However, across states, sending Bills to Committees for detailed examination is often the exception than the norm. In 2021, less than 10% of the Bills were sent to Committees. None of the Bills passed by the Uttarakhand Assembly had been examined by a committee. States that are an exception here include Kerala which has 14 subject Committees, and Bills are regularly sent to these for examination. However, these Committees are headed by their respective Ministers, which reduces the scope of independent scrutiny that may be undertaken.