Gap in healthcare coverage for foreign workers

With International Migrants Day being commemorated tomorrow, I wish to express my concern, as a doctor, with regard to the plight of foreign workers in Singapore who are injured or who fall ill with acute or chronic non-work-related illnesses.

Here are two stories from my personal experience:

The first is about an Indian construction worker who broke his jaw when he tripped on a staircase.

He refused hospital admission and surgery as his company would not cover the cost of the hospital bill as it was not a work-related injury.

He was given an early appointment for a clinic procedure, the next-best option, but he did not turn up, due to the costs involved.

Next was a Chinese worker who was struck acutely blind by a hypertensive emergency and who, without treatment, would have been in danger of losing his life.

Despite his condition, he wanted to walk out of the hospital, as he was afraid that his company would not cover the cost of his treatment since this was not a work-related illness.

Such scenarios play out every day in our hospitals. Doctors, patients and, often, employers are confused about the migrant patient's rights.

Among doctors, there are many anecdotal accounts of migrant workers who refuse emergency life-saving treatment for conditions such as heart attacks, and risk permanent disability or death because their companies will not pay for non-work-related illnesses.

Where chronic illnesses are concerned, if these breadwinners of their families develop diabetes or hypertension, many of them forgo treatment, as regular medication and follow-ups at polyclinics are too expensive for them.

They ignore their condition until it causes complications, for which they will pay later on.

In addition, construction workers develop common problems due to occupational exposure, notably, skin infections and dermatitis, but are unable to afford treatment unless it is provided by volunteers.

The foreign workers on our shores are people who have gone to great personal expense and taken risks with their health and safety to come here to live and work.

Singapore has become an affluent nation from our own humble immigrant roots.

Let us not ignore this problem.

Surely, we can do something more to close the policy and enforcement gaps for this vulnerable group of people who are contributing so much to building our nation.

Joanna Chan Shi-En (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2015, with the headline 'Gap in healthcare coverage for foreign workers'. Print Edition | Subscribe