A lawmaker said the free beds offered at private hospitals may as well not exist, after the health chief admitted that other charges at the facilities meant the poor were unlikely to ever use them.
Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man's comments came after he said told the Legislative Council's Public Accounts Committee in a meeting yesterday that the low occupancy rate for the free beds at private hospitals was the result of other fees charged there, including for patient consultation.
The committee met yesterday to discuss a number of problems with Hong Kong's private hospitals that were cited in a recent report by the Director of Audit.
People Power lawmaker Wong Yuk-man responded by attacking the government over the issue, saying by failing to regulate these fees, it made a mockery of the free-beds requirement.
"With these other charges, there is no point in offering them a free bed," Wong said. In particular, "the 20 free beds at St Teresa's Hospital exist in name only".
Some of Hong Kong's private hospitals are required to provide a certain number of free beds as part of the conditions on their land grants from the government. According to the audit report, the use of the free beds at St Teresa's ranged from 17 to 24 per cent between 2007 to 2011.
Ko said the Food and Health Bureau was talking to the Hospital Authority about a possible transfer of patients from public to private hospitals, in order to make good use of the free beds, but said there was no concrete proposal yet.
He said the government might consider not making the free beds a land grant condition in any future extension of the hospitals' land leases.
During the committee discussion, Dr Constance Chan Hon-yee, director of the Health Department, also admitted it did not know it had to check whether St Teresa's complied with the free-beds rule until the Audit Commission investigated.
Chan said: "We didn't know about the free-beds requirements at St Teresa's, so we didn't check."