More transparency, better purchasing decisions

There has been much discussion on rising healthcare costs and the role played by health insurance ("Managing claims costs can keep health insurance sustainable" by Life Insurance Association, Singapore; Tuesday).

More often than not, the Singaporean patient is forced to be the most submissive kind of price taker.

Medical bills are presented with minimal explanation as to how the final amount is arrived at. Insurance premiums fluctuate with minimal justification. Insurers send mixed signals as to the extent of coverage policyholders should opt for, and then respond inconsistently to claims.

I know of many acquaintances who have experienced considerable difficulty following this highly relevant public debate on healthcare costs, let alone comprehending their own healthcare expenses.

This speaks volumes of how opaque and unclear the pricing structure of Singapore healthcare has become.

The principal justification for businesses and service providers to display their prices remains the same, even across varied industries.

Consumers use price information in tandem with contextual knowledge on quality, convenience and other important factors.

This allows them to make a purchasing decision that will provide the greatest utility or benefit, at the lowest cost.

High operating costs, institutional oversight and other realities within the medical and insurance industries help to ensure that runaway price competition will not damage the quality of healthcare.

Rather, the most likely outcome is a convergence, and de facto standardisation, of prices across the board.

Conversely, where there is a lack of transparency, consumers inevitably suffer.

In the case of the healthcare industry, it leaves the door open for service providers to inflate their prices and premiums, leaving uninformed patients none the wiser.

We can therefore draw two clear conclusions.

First, it is imperative that comprehensive fee guidelines be laid down by the Ministry of Health and other authorities, consistent with the findings of the special Health Insurance Task Force recently set up.

Second, reform requires considerable will - political will from the state to push through changes, as well as good faith from healthcare and insurance providers.

The key to cost reduction is knowing one's options and choosing carefully.

Without price lists and transparent billing, patients will suffer.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2016, with the headline 'More transparency, better purchasing decisions'. Print Edition | Subscribe