SINGAPORE - The fee benchmark to be introduced by the Ministry of Health (MOH) this year is part of "a larger strategy to keep healthcare costs affordable and sustainable", said Senior Minister of State for Health Chee Hong Tat.
Mr Chee said this in Parliament on Monday (Jan 8) in reply to a question from Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC).
Dr Lim also asked how having a fee benchmarks could be aligned to the spirit of fair competition. He added that it may result in doctors who are currently charging less to raise their fees to that of the benchmark.
Mr Chee said the benchmark would not restrict competition as there is no obligation for doctors to charge what the benchmark states. Doctors may continue to charge higher or lower fees.
When pressed by Dr Lim on the possibility of doctors raising their fees, Mr Chee said he sincerely hopes that this would not be the case as most doctors here have the well-being of their patients foremost.
Mr Chee said the fee benchmark serves as a reference for the public to know if their doctor is charging them a reasonable fee.
It will also help the Singapore Medical Council, the professional watchdog, to identify the small number of doctors who overcharge.
The council can then take action to ensure that high fees from this small group of doctors won't push up healthcare costs for everyone.
He said the MOH believes that the benchmark will "encourage appropriate charging practices".
Mr Chee also answered a question from non-constituency MP, Associate Professor Daniel Goh of the Workers' Party, who asked if the removal of the Singapore Medical Association (SMA) fee guidelines in 2007 had led to the inflation of medical costs.
Mr Chee said the removal of these guidelines, which were deemed anti-competition, had no impact on medical costs.
He said there was no significant change in the average annual healthcare inflation rate in the decade preceding and following the withdrawal of the SMA fee guidelines.
Medical inflation in the decade prior to 2007 was 2.4 per cent, and 2.6 per cent in the past decade.
But Mr Chee added that recent government measures - such as Pioneer Generation package, MediShield Life subsidies and the Community Health Assist Scheme (Chas) where poorer people were given subsidies when seeing a private general practitioner or dentist - has helped to reduce healthcare inflation to 1.2 per cent between 2013 and 2016.
Professor Goh also asked how the MOH's benchmark will be set to prevent anti-competitive price-fixing.
Mr Chee said the benchmark will be set by the ministry, although it will be done with advice from an independent committee which will comprise medical providers from both public and private sectors, patients, those that pay for medical services, such as companies and insurers.
He added that employers and insurers can help keep a lid on rising healthcare costs by encouraging their employees and policyholders to use healthcare services prudently.