Many diabetics and people with high blood pressure will be referred from the public health system to the private sector under reforms expected to be disclosed next week by Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen in his policy address. The measures, which include setting up a directory of private doctors and dentists providing primary health care, reflect the government's desire to kick-start the overhaul of the stressed public health system while public consultation on broader reforms remains stalled. A working group set up by the Food and Health Bureau has recommended that improvements in co-operation between the public and private systems should go ahead first. It said the workload of caring for chronically ill but stable patients - of whom diabetes and hypertension sufferers pose some of the heaviest burdens - could be shared by private doctors who could spend more time with the patients. 'We hope the reform can be carried out as soon as possible,' said working group member Dr Donald Li Kwok-tung, former president of the College of Family Physicians. The proposals were welcomed cautiously by a patients' rights group, which said the cost of the care and its affordability for patients would have to be carefully scrutinised. Nineteen months after the government released a document that set the stage for a first round of public consultation, it remains unclear when the administration will launch the long-awaited second stage. A person close to the chief executive and familiar with the consultation said there was little chance the policy address would spell out a timetable for the second round. 'Donald Tsang may hold off the consultation on health care financing until the heat over the political reform debate subsides,' the person said. A government official said the timing would depend on the economic and political situation. 'Health care financing is a sensitive issue and not purely a medical issue, so it's crucial to choose an appropriate time for kicking off the consultation,' the official said. In his speech on Wednesday, Tsang is expected to touch briefly on primary health care reform, with the details being released by the Food and Health Bureau later. Working group member Dr Tse Hung-hing said the group had agreed on treatment protocols for public patients, so private doctors would know when they needed to refer patients back to public sector specialists. Tse, president of the Medical Association, also said it was important that private doctors should be able to set their prices. Fellow member Dr Louis Shih Tai-cho called on the government to be flexible in contracting out health care services to the private sector. 'While maintaining a transparent and accountable system, the government at the same time has to respect the free market operation,' Shih said. The vice-chairman of the Alliance for Patients' Mutual Help Organisations, Cheung Tak- hai, said public patients receiving specialist care at public hospitals paid on average HK$100 to HK$200, including a HK$60 consultation fee and 20 weeks' medication. 'The government must have an extensive consultation on patients' ability to afford [private care],' he said. 'We will oppose the reform if patients are asked to pay more than HK$300 per consultation.' The working group also agreed to a directory on primary care doctors and dentists. All registered practitioners would need to take continuous education in order to stay on the list.