Analysis of agency relationships in the design and implementation process of the equity fund in Madagascar

Background: There are large gaps in the literature relating to the implementation of user fee policy and fee exemption measures for the poor, particularly on how such schemes are implemented and why many have not produced expected outcomes. In October 2003, Madagascar instituted a user fee exemption policy which established "equity funds" at public health centres, and used medicine sales revenue to subsidise the cost of medicine for the poor. This study examines the policy design and implementation process of the equity fund in Madagascar in an attempt to explore factors influencing the poor equity outcomes of the scheme. Methods: This study applied an agency-incentive framework to investigate the equity fund policy design and implementation practices. It analysed agency relationships established during implementation; examined incentive structures given to the agency relationships in the policy design; and considered how incentive structures were shaped and how agents responded in practice. The study employed a case-study approach with in-depth analysis of three equity fund cases in Madagascar's Boeny region. Results: Policy design problems, triggering implementation problems, caused poor equity performance. These problems were compounded by the re-direction of policy objectives by health administrators and strong involvement of the administrators in the implementation of policy. The source of the policy design and implementation failure was identified as a set of principal-agent problems concerning: monitoring mechanisms; facility-based fund management; and the nature and level of community participation. These factors all contributed to the financial performance of the fund receiving greater attention than its ability to financially protect the poor. Conclusion: The ability of exemption policies to protect the poor from user fees can be found in the details of the policy design and implementation; and implications of the policy design and implementation in a specific context determine whether a policy can realise its objectives. The equity fund experience in Madagascar, which illustrates the challenges of beneficiary identification, casts doubts on the application of the 'targeting' approach in health financing and raises issues to be considered in universal health policy formulation. The agency framework provides a useful lens through which to examine policy process issues.