CAPE TOWN (Reuters) Feb 26 - South Africa's health minister on Tuesday signalled that the government planned to further regulate the private health care sector, saying it was profit-driven and not accessible to the poor majority.
Manto Tshabalala-Msimang told parliament's health committee efforts to make health care more affordable and accessible were moving too slowly.
"I have therefore decided that the current challenges in the private sector are best resolved through legislative interventions," she said.
Fourteen years after democratic elections in 1994, South Africa's health care system remains skewed between the haves and have-nots, with an under-staffed and under-resourced public sector system in marked contrast to the care given at private hospitals.
Membership of the 133 private medical schemes operating in the country is growing but is available mostly for middle- and high-income earners, and remains unaffordable for the vast majority of the country's poor.
Only 20 percent of the country's 47 million population are able to afford private health care, the minister said.
"Despite the high costs of private health care and decreasing affordability of medical scheme membership, health care providers and schemes continue to implement price increases that are unaffordable to the majority of South Africans."
Tshabalala-Msimang said among a range of government policies aimed at improving access to affordable medicine, such as a generic substitution policy, medicines pricing regulations have proved the most successful, saving over 2.3 billion rand ($300.3 million).
But, she said, patients had seen private hospitals, specialists and medical scheme administrators increase tariffs by as much as 33 percent.
Tshabalala-Msimang said private hospital prices had outstripped inflation, with customers in 2005 paying 2,320 rand per beneficiary compared to 803 rand in 1997.
Tshabalala-Msimang said private hospitals had agreed to a health department proposal that limits their tariff increases to inflation, and she was waiting for further talks with the health care groups on the issue.
Dubbed Dr. Beetroot for her promotion of beetroot, garlic and other foods as frontline treatments for HIV/AIDS, Tshabalala-Msimang has been branded an AIDS denialist by some scientists and grassroots activists.
(Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Editing by Janet Lawrence)