Hong Kong can and should pay for good health care
Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah will today deliver his last budget under the Donald Tsang Yam-kuen administration. As a result of the vibrant stock market last year, a red-hot property market that has prompted a huge rise in stamp duty revenue, as well as increased land sales, analysts expect a budget surplus of over HK$50 billion, even though the government had forecast a deficit of HK$8.5 billion last March.
With so much money in the coffers, public attention will focus on whether the government can effectively allocate the windfall to benefit the community at large.
The good news is that the finance chief is expected to allocate HK$15billion for the redevelopment of two ageing public hospitals - Queen Mary Hospital, which was founded in 1937, and the century-old Kwong Wah Hospital. Such a move would no doubt bring immense benefits to the community.
The staff at both hospitals have repeatedly pleaded with the government to finalise redevelopment plans. Donald Tsang made no mention of the hospitals' fate in his policy address last October. This may have been because of issues arising from the annual resource allocation exercise conducted by the Financial Services and Treasury Bureau.
Funding allocations are discussed and approved at these meetings, which are chaired by the permanent secretary of the Treasury and assisted by a number of senior civil servants. Its function is to review and process department funding requests according to financial management and processing procedures. The review looks at whether the relevant department really needs extra funding or whether it could reallocate its existing budget. This screening is important as it prevents unnecessary spending.
But, in recent years, the role of the resource allocation exercise seems to have changed for the worse. It has expanded beyond its mandate and put up unnecessary hurdles to block funding requests. It tends to scrutinise requests beyond the mandatory parameters of proper financial management, by questioning the urgency of some policy changes and their priorities. This unco-operative attitude has created a rather perverse bureaucratic culture.
As a result, many civil servants believe they are better off not rocking the boat and prefer to do nothing.
The staff at Queen Mary and Kwong Wah hospitals have been fighting for funding for years and their requests have been fully supported by the relevant political officials. Yet, the funding allocation has been stalled for years due to the bureaucratic manner and unhelpful attitude of those in charge of the resource allocation exercise.
If the funds are made available in today's budget, as expected, we should all be thankful to Tsang for overcoming this difficulty. If the funding is approved, the hospitals are expected to press the government to finalise the plan for refurbishment and implement it as soon as possible.
There's no time to waste. A poorly equipped hospital cannot serve patients effectively, even if it is staffed by top-notch medical people. As a first-class world city, we cannot allow our public hospitals to deliver third-world-standard health-care services. That would affect the morale of staff and hurt the well-being of patients.
The achievements of our medical sector are no doubt the envy of many around the world. We cannot accept that third-world medical hardware is still being used in our public hospitals.
With the rapidly rising demand from mainlanders for medical services in Hong Kong, our public system has been pushed to the limit. Hence, we must modernise and upgrade immediately, to satisfy not only local but also regional demand.
We certainly do not want to see local residents being squeezed out of the system and unable to enjoy health care because our public hospitals cannot cope with the rising demand. Such a scenario would only deepen existing social conflicts.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. email@example.com