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Friday, March 7, 2014

What a bitter pill, the medical fee hike

Narinder Singh | March 7, 2014

The government's move to placate the private healthcare sector may well blow up in its face.

Health concerns all and it does not come cheap these days. Falling sick is a double jeopardy for any individual. First you are bogged down by the illness, no matter how minor or severe, then you are hit with the medical bills and all other attendant care cost.

Loss of productivity, a lowered quality of life and financial constraints are just a drop in the ocean when one falls ill. Malaysia may boast of one of the best healthcare systems in the world, attracting hordes health tourists, but it has callously ignored the daily hardships endured by the middle class.

Middle income earners who make up the bulk of patients seeking medical attention from private practitioners and hospitals will have to now fork out more with the fee hike approved by the Health Ministry. Many will be forced to queue at government hospitals to get their medical needs met.

Ask any out-of-pocket paying patient and he will attest to the fact that over the decade, visiting a doctor in a private setting is an excruciating experience as not only are the fees burdensome but also prices of medicines and other supporting needs have been on the rise.

Though market forces may mitigate the inflation of professional fees, there is no guarantee that other affiliated services will not go up. Medicines cost far more today. Imagine if one suffers from chronic illness like diabetes, hypertension, liver or kidney failure, skin diseases and asthma, to name a few.

We must keep in mind that with the advances made in medical technology and human bio-sciences, doctors are prone to resort to defensive medicine, a trend that can be viewed as not healthy but essential to preempt any legal issues that may crop up.

Many unnecessary tests and diagnostics are being warranted which patients, more often than not, do not understand and are not made to. Thus the total cost of initiating a therapy or procedure will eventually cost an arm or a leg.

This practice is rampant in the private healthcare system, enabling handsome profits for shareholders of privately owned medical establishments.

Blow to the rakyat

One wonders if the Health Ministry is aware of such practices but then again, it may be of the opinion that it is the choice of the consumers.

The problem is our society by large is ignorant and does not take enough effort to educate themselves. Many believe that doctors are made in heaven and trust them implicitly.

One of the immediate repercussions from the hike is the possibility of more patients turning to government hospitals and clinics, especially those who can no longer afford private health care.

There are many government pensioners who would rather seek treatment in private settings to avoid the long waiting hours and lack of mobility in government hospitals. They visit local community doctors in private clinics and pharmacies to get their essential drugs and supplements. But with the fee hike, we can be assured that they will return to government-run hospitals and clinics.

Queues will be longer and the government health sector will be stretched further and overburdened. We will need longer clinic hours and more medical personnel to attend to the sick.

Overload of patients in government hospitals will be unavoidable and the fee hike will eventually back fire on the government.

The government should have looked all angles before making the decision.

Obviously stakeholders in the private sector will welcome the new amended schedule because of vested interest. But what was running in the minds of the policy makers from the government?

With Goods and Services Tax (GST) kicking in April next year, and with the uncertain terms in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) on drugs, medical procedures and medical equipments, the Health Ministry may well have hammered the first blow on the people of Malaysia.

And for sure health insurance providers will jump on board the hike, and in tandem raise their premiums, again at the plight of the already burdened society.

More may choose not to continue their policies or even opt out as living costs escalates to unmanageable levels.

Narinder Singh is a FMT team member.

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