This paper reports key findings and conclusions from a 1996 study of user fees and exemptions in the Volta Region of Ghana. A variety of data sources and methods were used, including interviews with patients and managers, community-based focus group discussions, analysis of facility records and analyses of previous household survey data.

Official fee levels and exemption categories were established in 1985. While this legislation made provision for drug fees to be ‘at cost’ and thus to be revised in line with inflation, other official fees have not been adjusted since 1985. In the face of declining real levels of budget allocations and decreased supplies of essential consumables from the Central medical stores, facility managers have established their own pricing and fee collection systems. This has been allowed by the Ministry of Health, but the decentralized nature of fee setting and collection practices has made it very difficult for the Ministry to monitor the effects of fees.

The study found that facility managers have been very active in setting and collecting fees and using the revenues to purchase essential inputs. The level of revenues being mobilized accounts for between two-thirds and four-fifths of the non-salary operating budget of government health facilities, and virtually all of the resources for non-salary operating expenses in mission hospitals.

Official exemptions are largely non-functional. Less than one in 1000 patient contacts were granted exemption in 1995. With estimates that between 15 and 30% of the population lives in poverty, the failure of exemptions to function means that fees are preventing access for the poor, or are imposing significant financial hardships on this part of the population.

Health facilities in the Volta Region have achieved a kind of ‘sustainable inequity’, with fees enabling service provision to continue, while concurrently preventing part of the population from using these services.