Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Tuesday said that the Covid-19 pandemic has triggered mental health problems in the country and announced that the government will launch a National Tele Mental Health programme.

While presenting the Budget for 2022-’23, the finance minister said that the programme will include a network of 23 tele mental health centres of excellence across the country.

The centres will help improve the access to quality mental health counselling and care services, Sitharaman said, adding that the Bengaluru-based National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, or NIMHANS, would be its nodal centre.

The International Institute of Information Technology in Bangalore will provide technological support for the mental health programme, the finance minister said.

In her speech on Tuesday, Sitharaman announced that the outlay for health and well-being will be Rs 86,606 crore – an increase of Rs 12,004 or 16% from 2021-’22.

“A new open platform for the National Digital Health Ecosystem will be rolled out,” Sitharaman said. “It will comprehensively consist of digital registries of health providers and health facilities, unique health identity, consent framework, and shall provide universal access to health facilities.”

Experts from the healthcare sector had mixed reactions to the Budget provisions, reported The Hindu. While the thrust on growing mental health concerns in view of the pandemic was welcomed, many of the experts said not enough had been done for the country’s healthcare infrastructure.

PwC India’s Dr Rana Mehta said the use of telemedicine for mental healthcare will enhance accessibility, especially in rural areas.

Former Health Ministry Secretary K Sujatha Rao said the Budget disappointed on the health and education fronts. “…Roads and ports don’t make sense if people are illiterate and sick,” she tweeted. She said the “disdain” for these sectors after the trauma as a result of the poor health system is “irresponsible”.

Medical professionals also highlighted that healthcare spending remains inadequate.

Dr Alok Roy, Chair of the health services committee of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said healthcare, like information technology, should have been accorded national priority status. Roy said the government did not look at increasing healthcare expenditure to more than 2.5% of the gross domestic product, according to The Hindu.

Founder Director of Ujala Cygnus Group of Hospitals Dr Shuchin Bajaj said it was disappointing to see that healthcare spending was not 3% of the GDP, despite the government’s promises, according to The Hindu.

Sitharaman also announced that nearly two lakh anganwadis will be upgraded in the country under the Centre’s Saksham scheme.

The Saksham scheme was first announced in the Budget speech of 2021-’22 under Mission Poshan 2.0. The scheme aims to upgrade anganwadi centres with additional facilities, including smart learning, smart teaching and creche.

In her speech, Sitharaman acknowledged the ongoing vaccination campaign against the coronavirus and said that it had helped significantly to fight the pandemic.

The medical device industry said critical issues that came up as a result of the pandemic were not addressed. Rajiv Nath, forum coordinator of the Association of Indian Medical Device Industry, said the Budget did not include provisions to boost domestic manufacturing, according to The Hindu. Nath said that when imports were disrupted due to the pandemic, the government relied heavily on domestic manufacturers of medical devices. “…The government has not included any measures to help end the 80-85% import dependence forced upon India,” Nath was quoted as saying by The Hindu.