Parliament: WP chief Pritam Singh calls for universal senior citizen healthcare package

Calling for a permanent healthcare package for senior citizens from age 60, Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh said this basic level of medical benefits would ease their out-of-pocket expenses and help them cope with living costs.
Calling for a permanent healthcare package for senior citizens from age 60, Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh said this basic level of medical benefits would ease their out-of-pocket expenses and help them cope with living costs.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Calling for a permanent healthcare package for senior citizens from age 60, Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh said this basic level of medical benefits would ease their out-of-pocket expenses and help them cope with living costs.
WORKERS' PARTY CHIEF PRITAM SINGH.

A permanent senior citizen healthcare package for all Singaporeans from age 60 has been proposed by Workers' Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh, who said it will "represent a critical symbol of integration" among the people.

This basic level of medical benefits will also ease citizens' out-of-pocket expenses for primary healthcare and help them cope with the cost of living, he said yesterday, the first day of debate in Parliament on the 2019 Budget statement that was unveiled last week.

Mr Singh (Aljunied GRC) said such a healthcare package will also help the Government address feedback from the ground that schemes, such as the Pioneer Generation Package and Merdeka Generation Package, are timed with the election cycle or are unfair because some are left out.

There is an "inherent inequity" in the Government's packages for the earlier generations as some senior citizens, by virtue of their year of birth, miss out on a few years of medical benefits because of the interval between the one-time packages, he added.

Mr Singh, one of four WP MPs who spoke yesterday, also suggested how the WP's proposed healthcare scheme can be funded from the annual Budget.

First, the introduction of Temasek Holdings into the Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC) framework since 2016 brings an additional $5 billion a year into the mix instantly and about $25 billion across a five-year term of government, he said.

Despite greater spending needs going forward, the roughly 35 per cent increase in the NIRC from 2016 "goes some way to explain the healthy accumulated surpluses accrued to this term of government from the opening of Parliament in 2016", he noted.

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If change is indeed going to be deeper and faster, then Singaporeans must be ready to become active participants of this process, with the Government facilitating conversations by sharing more information. A strong and united Singapore will not be built with some Singaporeans being made to feel that they must conform or support the Government's narrative with little room for alternative views.

WORKERS' PARTY CHIEF PRITAM SINGH

 
 
 

Second, he cited Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat's Budget statement that huge infrastructure projects will be partly funded through borrowing. Mr Singh asked whether this can free up revenue to fund recurrent spending.

"If it does, it would appear that funding such a universal and permanent healthcare initiative for our seniors cannot be dismissed as dishonest, unreasonable or imprudent," he said, citing adjectives that People's Action Party MPs had used in previous years when they shot down the WP's suggestions on public spending.

Last May, in the debate on the President's Address, the WP called for a relook of the 50 per cent cap on spending from the returns of the reserves. National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said it showed an "ill-disciplined, imprudent and unwise" mindset to relax the rules every time money was needed.

In last year's Budget debate, Mr Heng rapped the WP as "dishonest and irresponsible" for its stand on the proposed goods and services tax hike from 7 per cent to 9 per cent, expected to take effect some time from 2021 to 2025.

Mr Singh's call for the senior healthcare package was echoed by MP Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) and Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh.

Responding to the proposal, Mr Chee Hong Tat, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry as well as Education, said there are quite a number of existing healthcare subsidies that are structural.

These include extra subsidies at polyclinics for seniors, and government subsidies and support to help low-and middle-income Singaporeans pay for MediShield Life premiums, he added.

"It is not quite accurate for Associate Professor Goh to describe it as, Singaporeans pay for each other, (and the) Government save money. Actually, the Government pays quite a bit of the premiums through premium subsidies and additional premium support. This is part of the sharing," Mr Chee said.

The same principle applies to the upcoming disability insurance scheme CareShield Life, he said, adding that the Community Health Assist Scheme will be expanded to benefit more Singaporeans.

In his speech, Mr Singh also urged the Government to be more open and transparent in sharing information, pointing to the freedom of information law elsewhere.

"Increasingly, as we move into the future, the Government will not have all the answers," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2019, with the headline 'WP chief calls for universal senior citizen healthcare package'. Print Edition | Subscribe