Next on the agenda: Rein in rising costs of health care

The MediShield Life Review Committee has done a good job in coming up with a national insurance scheme to cover everyone, with higher benefits than now, yet maintaining premiums at an affordable level.

And the Government has to be lauded too, for loosening its purse strings to the tune of $4 billion over the first five years, and for giving the assurance that the premium subsidies for two in three people will be a permanent feature.

Taken together, they will certainly give Singaporeans greater assurance that they will be able to afford medical care till the end of their lives, even as costs continue to rise, fuelled by inflation and new medical treatments.

You might think that policymakers should be entitled to some rest now, given that they have put in the complex structure for such a major shift in health-care financing.

But they really should not, for the immediate next goal must be to rein in rising health-care costs.

"Insurance inevitably causes both patients and medical providers to become less cost-conscious, and to use more medical services than they really should," warned the committee in its report. "We have to accept this."

But should we really?

Health-care costs here have been going up by 10 per cent annually over the past five years.

If the introduction of MediShield Life were to push costs up further, then surely the affordability of the new scheme would be at risk in years to come.

This is especially as Singapore is also facing a rapidly ageing population which would already put a heavier burden on medical care.

As Mrs Hauw Soo Hoon, one of the 11 members of the committee, said yesterday, insurance claims come from a pot which is filled by premiums from everyone.

She said: "So actually it's everybody's responsibility to watch that this pot of money is being utilised in a responsible way."

This will take public education.

People must learn to be responsible and not let the "buffet syndrome" - where some diners will pile their plates high with food they cannot finish eating simply because there is no extra charge - destroy a promising medical insurance that covers everyone.

Health-care providers, too, must guard against being "kiasu" and ordering an unnecessary battery of tests just to have all bases covered. This will do society no service.

But perhaps the biggest impact on health-care costs comes from keeping the population healthy and out of hospital.

It involves the healthy staying that way.

Perhaps even more important is to catch diseases at as early a stage as possible, and keep it in check.

A lot of this is already being done, with subsidised screening and chronic care for the less well-off.

It should be ramped up. Not only will it help put a lid on costs, but it will also improve the quality of life of Singaporeans.

While it will involve a lot of effort, and will not come cheap, it will certainly be cheaper than having to care for the same people in hospital.

This is not something the Government can do alone.

People must do their part - and heed the frequent mantra of eating healthy, exercising often, not smoking, and going for regular screening.

For those who have chronic ailments such as diabetes, it will be important to follow their doctors' orders, for this will mean the difference between a high quality of life - or none at all.

Yes, MediShield Life gives the assurance that big hospital bills will be taken care of.

But my sincere wish is for people to happily keep paying premiums - and never needing to claim for any bills at all.