Background: Removing user fees in primary health care services is one of the most critical policy issues being considered in Africa. User fees were introduced in many African countries during the 1980s and their impacts are well documented. Concerns regarding the negative impacts of user fees have led to a recent shift in health financing debates in Africa. Kenya is one of the countries that have implemented a user fees reduction policy. Like in many other settings, the new policy was evaluated less that one year after implementation, the period when expected positive impacts are likely to be highest. This early evaluation showed that the policy was widely implemented, that levels of utilization increased and that it was popular among patients. Whether or not the positive impacts of user fees removal policies are sustained has hardly been explored. We conducted this study to document the extent to which primary health care facilities in Kenya continue to adhere to a 'new' charging policy 3 years after its implementation.
Methods: Data were collected in two districts (Kwale and Makueni). Multiple methods of data collection were applied including a cross-sectional survey (n = 184 households Kwale; 141 Makueni), Focus Group Discussions (n = 12) and patient exit interviews (n = 175 Kwale; 184 Makueni).
Results: Approximately one third of the survey respondents could not correctly state the recommended charges for dispensaries, while half did not know what the official charges for health centres were. Adherence to the policy was poor in both districts, but facilities in Makueni were more likely to adhere than those in Kwale. Only 4 facilities in Kwale adhered to the policy compared to 10 in Makueni. Drug shortage, declining revenue, poor policy design and implementation processes were the main reasons given for poor adherence to the policy.
Conclusion: We conclude that reducing user fees in primary health care in Kenya is a policy on paper that is yet to be implemented fully. We recommend that caution be taken when deciding on how to reduce or abolish user fees and that all potential consequences are carefully considered.