Lucia Kagotha holds her new born baby boy at the Mbagathi Hospital of Nairobi. File picture: Ivan Lieman

Nairobi - Women of child-bearing age in Kenya have been urged to plan their families.

They have been warned not to abuse the newly launched expanded free maternal health services by "giving birth every year".

The remarks were made by the National Chairperson of Kenya's largest women's movement - Maendeleo ya Wanawake-Rahab Muiu during the launch of the government's flagship health programme dubbed "Linda Mama, Boresha Maisha" which is Swahili for "taking care of women guarantees a good life for all".

The launch which took place in Nairobi was attended by hundreds of women from all over the country including some who had already benefitted from the free maternity services offered in government and private hospitals.

Speakers at the function hailed the new health programme as the most comprehensive maternity package the country has ever had.

Muiu said that the introduction of this free maternity service would lift the financial burdens of families who are normally saddled with hospital bills they cannot afford. In addition to this, she said, that women giving birth in hospitals would enable the goal of reducing maternal and infant mortality which is still high in Kenya.

She urged the government to empower women economically and include them in decision-making positions.

Speaking at the same function, Wilfred Machage, chairperson of the denate committee on health, said it was good to have expanded maternal health services but that patients suffered because doctors and nurses were always on go slow or on strike.

Machage challenged the Ministry of Health to quickly resolve the labour crisis that has plunged the country's health sector into dire straits causing untold suffering to patients across the country.

Machage said the senate's health committee was prepared to mediate between all the health sector stakeholders in order to find solutions to the perennial strikes by medics.

"The Senate will soon invite all healthcare providers to a meeting to resolve these issues," said Machage.

Mohamed Mohamud, chairperson of the state-run National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF), said that the expanded free maternity service included additional health facilities run by private and faith- based stakeholders.

Mohamud said that NHIF reforms include the expansion of the actual benefits packages which would now include pre-natal, post-natal, inpatient, outpatient and even chronic conditions and specialised lab services.

"It (NHIF) is a super cover package and we shall continue improving it," said Mohamud adding that the aim was to achieve universal health coverage for Kenyans by 2030.

Reading a speech on behalf of President Uhuru Kenyatta who was supposed to be the guest of honour at the launch, Cabinet Secretary of the Ministry of Health Cleopas Mailu said that the government had set aside a budget of Ksh5.4 billion (US$54 million) to cater for maternal and child health care.

Mailu said that since the introduction of the free maternal health care in government hospitals in 2013, the programme has recorded positive child and maternal indicators and managed to avert at least 30,000 child deaths and 2000 maternal deaths.

He said there had been a 35 percent increase of women delivering in public health facilities since 2013 adding that the programme is expected to connect a further 400,000 women to free maternal healthcare with an additional 2000 private health facilities in the programme.

The speakers also hailed the efforts of the First Lady Margaret Kenyatta for partnering in maternal healthcare through her initiative of providing maternal mobile clinics.