Locals' needs come first in rush for maternity bed spaces
Limiting the number of mainland women giving birth in the city's hospitals from next year to free up resources for local expectant mothers has not completely resolved the issue. On the contrary, it is expected to shift the burden to private hospitals to satisfy rising demand.
To further complicate things, it has created an impression that the government is sending business to the private sector, and may lead to an undesirable situation whereby local expectant mothers who cannot find a place in public hospitals will increasingly find a private hospital bed space priced out of their reach, creating yet another wealth-gap problem in society.
Secretary for Food and Health York Chow Yat-ngok said last month the government would cap the number of mainland mothers giving birth in both public and private hospitals at 34,400 per annum from next year. The quota for public hospitals will be 3,400, a drop of 68 per cent from the 10,000-plus mainland women who gave birth there last year. Meanwhile, their number in private hospitals would drop by 7 per cent under the plan.
The quota allocated to public hospitals does not differentiate between mainland women married to Hong Kong men and non-local mainland women, which many believe is unfair to the former.
The proposed quota system has given private doctors and hospitals the financial incentive to further expand their services for mainland women. As a result, the needs and basic rights of local pregnant women will be overlooked.
The fact is that the government measure has not eased the problem but created a man-made shortage and given private hospitals an opportunity to raise fees due to an acute imbalance of supply and demand. Furthermore, the so-called maternity agents, who help pregnant mainland women secure hospital beds in Hong Kong, have already taken advantage of the restrictions and propose to raise their fees by up to 20 per cent. No wonder so many local pregnant women and mainland women married to Hong Kong men took part in the July 1 rally.
If the government is serious about tackling the root of the problem, it must shoulder the full responsibility of providing maternity care. First, it has to implement a centralised system to allocate bed spaces, covering both public and private hospitals. All reservations for maternity bed spaces should go through the government to make sure they are fairly distributed.
A monitoring group should also be set up to prevent manipulation, or favourable treatment to those who can afford higher fees. Doctors who help their patients register false due dates to secure a bed should be disciplined by the Medical Council. The government should also step up efforts to stop abuse by maternity agents, such as through legislation.
Any government measure must have local residents' best interests at heart. All local expectant mothers and pregnant women married to Hongkongers should get priority when it comes to maternity services. Once their needs are satisfied, bed spaces and services can be allocated to non-Hong Kong residents.
The proposed quota system to allocate 3,400 bed spaces in public hospitals for mainland mothers will only create confusion, while neglecting the rights of mainland women married to local residents.
The number of pregnant women in that category is small; about 6,000 mainland women married to local men give birth in Hong Kong every year. If the quota of 3,400 could go to them, half the problem would be solved. But the government seems to have chosen the hard way. And, by doing so, it has compounded the problem and stripped away the rights of mainland women who are entitled to medical services here.
There are signs of growing public anger over a string of social and political issues. This latest one will only push public discontent towards boiling point, mainly because of our health chief's lack of sensitivity and political acumen in mapping out a health policy. We must speak out against such misguided policy, to protect the rights and interests of local residents.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. firstname.lastname@example.org