Critics of Hong Kong health minister say he watered down coverage plan under pressure from insurers
Dr Ko Wing-man extended private care for elderly and chronically ill patients but leaves problem of manpower shortages to his successor
The outgoing health minister Dr Ko Wing-man enjoyed high popularity ratings throughout his term in Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s cabinet, but his soft approach in pushing new policies disappointed some people.
As promised in Leung’s election manifesto in 2012, which aimed to encourage more people to use private medical services, the government came up with a voluntary health insurance scheme to help relieve the burden on the public medical sector.
But lawmakers questioned the financial sustainability of covering everyone and, under pressure, the government said insurers would not have to cover high-risk patients or guarantee to cover anyone regardless of age or illness.
Also dropped temporarily was a requirement that all policies be portable.
“In general, the minister did quite well in many issues,” said lawmaker Dr Kwok Ka-ki, a doctor by profession. “But it is disappointing that he watered down the reform proposal under pressure from the insurance sector.”
Patients’ groups and doctors say the amended plan, which launches next year, fails to protect patients who are not now eligible to buy health insurance.
Ko also failed to tackle the manpower shortage in the overburdened public sector, though the number of medical students rose from 320 in 2011/2012 to 470 in 2016/2017. This remains a headache for the team under Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor when she takes over on July 1.
Patients still face a strenuously long wait to see doctors at specialist clinics and emergency wards in public hospitals.
According to the latest figures, patients have to wait up to 179 weeks to see a doctor at the orthopaedics specialist clinic in New Territories East. Waiting time at some emergency wards for non-urgent patients could be over eight hours during flu peaks.
But access to primary care doctors by the underprivileged did improve during Ko’s term, as health-care vouchers for the elderly increased from HK$500 in 2012 to HK$2,000. More chronically ill patients at public general clinics were also subsidised for follow-up care with private doctors.
While Ko also kept his promise to formulate tighter regulation of private hospitals and medical groups, to map out a health-care manpower plan for the future and to review the Hospital Authority, these measures will take time to see results.
On Tuesday the government said Ko’s plans after his official term ends would not pose any conflict of interest. It is understood he will work as an orthopaedician in a clinic in Jordan.