Experts: Step in right direction, but transparency vital

An elderly woman leaving the Econ Health and Wellness Centre.
An elderly woman leaving the Econ Health and Wellness Centre. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

While the proposed measures to curb rising healthcare costs are a step in the right direction, much will depend on how insurers implement these changes, say industry experts.

They stressed the importance of transparency, especially in issues such as the appointment of preferred healthcare providers.

Yesterday, the Health Insurance Task Force released a 54-page report on managing the cost of health insurance in Singapore, which could rise in a few months for those on private plans integrated with MediShield Life.

Its recommendations include getting consumers to better manage healthcare costs by making them pay co-insurance or deductibles, and introducing guidelines for medical fees.

"A lot of patients are buying as-charged plans, and that causes them to be careless because then they are not concerned about the bill," said neurologist Tang Kok Foo, who runs Tang Neurology & Medical Clinic. "But they are very short-sighted, because the party is coming to an end."

Insurers end up shelling out on behalf of such patients, which in turn causes premiums for everyone in that category to go up in the long run.

There are also doctors who charge far more than they should, said Dr Tang, and having guidelines on medical fees would increase transparency and give patients a better idea of what they should be paying.

Currently, the Health Ministry publishes only the range of total operation fees at the 25th and 75th percentiles.

Panels of preferred healthcare providers set up by insurers can be a good way to keep costs affordable, said gastroenterologist Desmond Wai. Such panels would use fee agreements to manage medical costs. "But you need to have a transparent and fair system to see who can be on the list. It can't be a case where they pick you because you charge the least," said Dr Wai.

While the proposed measures are useful, he added, it could be difficult to curb healthcare costs because of Singapore's ageing population and advances in medical technology, which do not come cheap.

In general, efforts to keep healthcare affordable should include safeguards to ensure cost- cutting does not come at the expense of patients, stressed Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Joan Pereira, who is a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health. "We have to balance cost-management measures with the need to maintain the quality of healthcare delivery."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2016, with the headline 'Experts: Step in right direction, but transparency vital'. Print Edition | Subscribe