No will to tackle Hong Kong’s private hospitals

As patients struggle to find a bed in our public hospitals, private ones are often underused. But it is unlikely that the government will force more private hospitals to offer a percentage of patients services with set prices

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2018, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2018, 10:27pm

The government has a habit of making generous land grants to private clubs, international schools and private hospitals, a policy that dates back to the colonial era.

All three have evolved into sectors providing privileges for the wealthy elites using public resources. While they are not the causes of extreme inequality in Hong Kong, they contribute to them. If land is in short supply, this land grant policy needs to be radically revamped.

Recent focus has been on private clubs, especially the 170-hectare Fanling golf course run by the exclusive Hong Kong Golf Club, and to a lesser extent, on international schools. But this land issue with private hospitals is as relevant, if not more so, in light of the shortage of public doctors and hospital beds.

Of the 11 long-standing private hospitals, five operate on government sites granted at nil or token premium.

This supposedly allows the government to stipulate operating conditions, such as allotting a minimum number of “cheap” beds for general public use, and reinvesting all extra profits into upgrading facilities. The latter is because private hospitals are, supposedly, non-profit and tax-exempt charities.

Yet, only two such private hospitals have a minimum public bed requirement. Unsurprisingly, they don’t advertise it. It is also not clear how strictly the Health Department enforces the rule.

While patients fight over public hospital beds, private ones are underused, often at the 60-plus percentage range. The usage for free or discounted beds at the two private hospitals is even more pitiful. According to a government audit, they ranged from 17 per cent to 24 per cent between 2007 and 2011. It’s not clear how much their usage has improved since.

The government realises there is a problem. Two new private hospitals – the Gleneagles which opened last year and CUHK Medical Centre, set to open in 2020 – must offer a percentage of patients with packaged charges – that is, services with set prices. This is thought to be more effective than the provision of free or discounted beds.

Because their land grants last for decades and are rarely up for renewal, it’s argued that the government doesn’t have much leverage over the hospitals. But it does have “a nuclear option” – the questionable tax status of private hospitals as non-profit charities.

This could be used to force concessions such as packaged charges from them. But of course, this government will never have the will to do it.