Healthcare seen as Hong Kong birthright

Liang Hongfu

2008-03-12 06:28:36  China Daily      

As expected, the Hong Kong government has put aside a lump sum to help bankroll the proposed healthcare reform.

What is surprising is the sheer size of the provision. At HK$50 billion ($6.4 billion), it is nearly half the entire HK$115.6 billion budget surplus for 2007. Of course, there are people who complain that it is still not enough. But considering the fact that the amount provided can more than cover the total healthcare expenditure for the year, that is plenty.

Good as it is, the healthcare system in Hong Kong is facing financial strain that is expected to get worse in coming years. The government has warned that healthcare costs can balloon to more than HK$180 billion a year by 2033.

The share of healthcare in total government expenditure is expected to rise to 17 percent by 2012 from slightly below 15 percent. It is expected to eventually rise to over 27 percent, raising concern that the quality of service cannot be sustained without a major revamp of the financing arrangements.

For that reason, the allocation of funds to meet contingency needs arising from the proposed healthcare financing reform seems most appropriate. Noting that details of the reform will be made public soon, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah was quoted as saying: "It does not matter what the ultimate healthcare-financing proposal will be like, we will be giving out this HK$50 billion."

This funding appropriation has indicated the government's strong commitment to the proposed healthcare reform that would touch the lives of nearly all Hong Kong citizens who have taken quality and an affordable medical service for granted.

To many of us who have worked and lived overseas, the Hong Kong healthcare system was the ultimate social safety net that never failed to lend us a strong sense of security. It was comforting to know that if we ever fell ill, we could always return home for care.

I was rushed to hospital after a bad car accident in Hong Kong many years ago. None of the nurses or doctors asked me if I had insurance coverage, or enough money to pay the bill. They just gave me the medical care I needed. The next morning, a stern-faced hospital administrator came to visit me in the ward. I did not know what to expect until she asked me if I needed social service assistance for myself and family.

I stayed in hospital for a week and was charged only for the meals. The total bill was HK$35, and the food was actually not bad at all.

There must be millions of other people in Hong Kong who, like me, look upon our healthcare system as sacrosanct. Any attempt to tamper with it would arouse our strong suspicions and deep concerns.

We understand intellectually, at least, that because of the aging population and rapidly rising costs, our society will find it more difficult to afford a healthcare system that provides the level of affordable and quality medical service, which has become the envy of many other cities in the region.

While we recognize the need for change, we urge our government to clearly draw the bottom line, that no Hong Kong citizen, irrespective of his or her financial status and social standing, will be denied timely and quality medical service.

Hong Kong people seldom ask their government for handouts. They believe in self-reliance. But affordable and quality healthcare has never been seen as a form of handout. Rather, it is regarded as our birthright.