Malaysia commits to reforming its healthcare system

Minister says it will gradually aim to increase healthcare spending every year

Malaysia will undertake a medium to long-term reform of its healthcare sector while gradually aiming to increase healthcare spending every year, Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz said yesterday.

Speaking during a virtual briefing on the World Economic Forum (WEF)'s latest Asean Youth Survey - organised in collaboration with The Straits Times - Datuk Seri Zafrul admitted that Malaysia's public healthcare spending needs a review after the country reeled from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We have a blueprint, we are looking at a new way forward, and a study will be undertaken to reform the healthcare system," he said.

"We are committed to reforming the healthcare system in the medium to long term," he said during the briefing on the survey titled Asean Digital Generation: Pathway to Asean's Inclusive Digital Transformation and Recovery.

Malaysia's healthcare spending is still below 5 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP), way below the projected average of close to 10 per cent of GDP for Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

It is projected to hit 5 per cent of GDP this year ahead of the next federal budget to be tabled on Oct 29, Mr Zafrul had previously said.

Among the policy directions being considered is increasing public healthcare charges for higher-income earners, and incentivising people to buy health insurance. Social protection schemes should also provide health benefits for informal workers, Mr Zafrul said.

Malaysia's public healthcare system is almost free for all citizens. Mr Zafrul said about 70 per cent of the 32 million population rely on the public healthcare sector.

The spread of the Delta variant had stretched the healthcare system in Malaysia, which last year was one of the early success stories in containing the pandemic.

Hospitals were overstretched, while Covid-19 bed utilisation was consistently beyond 100 per cent during its peak two months ago, leading to the setting up of field hospitals.

Mr Zafrul also said that as the virus progresses from the pandemic to endemic stage, there is a need to improve the ability of Asean nations to coordinate an effective response.

"The region also needs to spend more on public healthcare," he said. "We must increase our preparedness through Asean resource pooling."

Mr Zafrul said that the region needs to invest in regional disease centres, vaccine development and develop better understanding of communicable diseases.

Another panellist, Ms La Hieu Hue, a businesswoman from Vietnam who is also part of WEF's Global Shaper community, said her country was not prepared for the spread of the Delta variant this year.

Vietnam was also seen as one of the early success stories in containing the pandemic, but like much of the region, has struggled with the Delta variant and a slower roll-out of vaccines compared with other Asean nations.

"We were unprepared, and this has caused a heavy disruption in the supply chain," Ms Hue said.

Both Malaysia and Vietnam are currently exiting their recent peak of infections.

Malaysia recorded 7,950 new Covid-19 cases yesterday - the 11th consecutive day that cases had remained below the 10,000 mark - a sharp drop from the 24,599 cases recorded on Aug 26.

Vietnam reported 3,461 new cases yesterday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2021, with the headline 'Malaysia commits to reforming its healthcare system'. Subscribe