Universal Health Coverage (UHC) has emerged as a major goal for health care delivery in the post-2015 development agenda. It is viewed as a solution to health care needs in low and middle countries with growing enthusiasm at both national and global levels. Throughout the world, however, the paths of countries to UHC have differed. South Africa is currently reforming its health system with UHC through developing a national health insurance (NHI) program. This will be practically achieved through a decentralized approach, the district health system, the main vehicle for delivering services since democracy.
We utilize a review of relevant documents, conducted between September 2014 and December 2015 of district health systems (DHS) and UHC and their ideological underpinnings, to explore the opportunities and challenges, of the district health system in achieving UHC in South Africa.
Review of data from the NHI pilot districts suggests that as South Africa embarks on reforms toward UHC, there is a need for a minimal universal coverage and emphasis on district particularity and positive discrimination so as to bridge health inequities. The disparities across districts in relation to health profiles/demographics, health delivery performance, management of health institutions or district management capacity, income levels/socio-economic status and social determinants of health, compliance with quality standards and above all the burden of disease can only be minimised through positive discrimination by paying more attention to underserved and disadavantaged communities.
We conclude that in South Africa the DHS is pivotal to health reform and UHC may be best achieved through minimal universal coverage with positive discrimination to ensure disparities across districts in relation to disease burden, human resources, financing and investment, administration and management capacity, service readiness and availability and the health access inequalities are consciously implicated. Yet ideological and practical issues make its achievement problematic.