Hospital Authority should tread carefully on planned price rises

The need to protect access to low-cost health care for those on lower incomes must be balanced against ever increasing demand for medical services

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 January, 2017, 12:57am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 January, 2017, 12:57am

The Hospital Authority’s warning ahead of the flu season of increasingly longer waits in accident and emergency units puts into sharper perspective its proposals for price rises for major medical services. The authority said the increases could alleviate overcrowding at A&E wards by encouraging more patients to use private clinics. It plans to consult stakeholders, including the public, before submitting proposed rises to the government.

It will be a hard sell, for two reasons. One is a controversial 120 per cent increase for accident and emergency services to HK$220. The current fee of HK$100 has been the hallmark of an affordable, world-class medical system since being introduced in 2002. It is enough to get you to see an HA doctor and, if necessary, admission to a ward where you could remain at HK$100 a day, a small fraction of the real cost.

Hong Kong Hospital Authority proposes higher charges for use of public services

The other reason is political timing. The authority’s self-imposed deadline for submitting its final proposals to the government is by March, when the Election Committee is to vote on candidates to become the city’s next chief executive from July. Fear of a public outcry over the impact on low-income people is likely to stifle serious debate.

Officials have always found the issue a hot potato. An unprecedented surge in demand for treatment last winter brought it to a head. Non-emergency patients complained they had to wait up to seven hours for A&E service, after which it could take up to 20 hours to be moved to a general ward.

Other proposals include raising the hospital bed charge from HK$100 to HK$150 a night and the charge for a first visit to a specialist clinic from HK$100 to HK$170. HA chief executive Dr Leung Pak-yin rightly acknowledges the need for exemptions that protect the livelihoods of low-income people.

Fee rises of some kind do seem inevitable, given that they have been frozen for so long. Coordinating them with the introduction of the planned voluntary health insurance scheme could help shift more of the health burden to the private sector.