Straits Times: ‘Nursing home in JB’ remark only a suggestion

Budget debate

MINISTRY OF HEALTH

Khaw says he just wanted middle-income families to know that such an option exists

BY SALMA KHALIK
HEALTH CORRESPONDENT

HEALTH Minister Khaw Boon Wan had a suggestion on Monday for Singaporeans: Consider staying at a nursing home in neighbouring Johor where prices are lower.

Yesterday, it received flak from two opposition MPs.

Workers’ Party (WP) chairman and Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim said the suggestion was “quite a bad indication of affordability of our own health-care services here and also a reflection of our national values”.

Fellow WP member Low Thia Kiang (Hougang) asked: “Is the minister suggesting that Singaporeans who cannot afford medical treatment or step-down care here should now consider such facilities in Johor?”

If so, is the minister “outsourcing the Government’s responsibility to provide affordable health-care service to Malaysia?” he asked.

Their remarks riled Mr Khaw.

“I’m not saying that if you are poor, I will put you in an ambulance, send you across the Causeway to a Johor nursing home. That is not what I said and please don’t twist my words,” he said.

In fact, the Johor option is not for the poor, who are heavily subsidised in Singapore. “Everybody can afford health care in Singapore, whether acute care or long-term care,” he pointed out.

The suggestion was aimed at middle-income families who need to pay for the care themselves. It gives them a choice.

“I just wanted to point out to Singaporeans that there are options like this,” Mr Khaw said.

Cost of nursing home care will always be more expensive in Singapore, as doctors and nurses are paid more and construction cost is higher, he said.

He had said on Monday that since many people visit the elderly in homes only on weekends, it makes little difference whether the person is housed here or in nearby Johor.

It is part of globalisation and is happening with Singaporeans going to Bangkok for Lasik to treat short-sightedness and Americans and Russians coming here for treatment, he noted.

It is also not something that should, or can, be prevented, he added.

Singaporeans are crossing the Causeway for cheaper petrol and medicine.

“By allowing the flexibility of consumers walking across the Causeway…they benefit. I don’t think we should constrain them from doing so.”

Pointing to the United States, where 40 million to 50 million people cannot even afford health insurance, the minister said that in Singapore, even the unemployed or those with low incomes can afford a standard of care comparable to that in the US.

To a question from Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC) on whether more can done to make health care affordable in these difficult times, Mr Khaw said cheap, or even free, health care was always possible.

But what standard of care would that provide, he asked.

“To keep health-care costs affordable is the easiest thing in the world, but to keep it also of a high standard and yet affordable, very few countries have done so.

“I like to believe that we are one of them. We are not perfect but I think we have done a fairly good job.”

He referred to a story in this month’s Japan Echo on the country’s health-care system, which “screamed that it is on the verge of collapsing”.

Said Mr Khaw: “I felt sorry for Japan because for a long time, it was among the best health-care systems in the world.”

He recalled a recent newspaper story about a seriously ill pregnant woman in Tokyo who died because several hospitals said they were too full to take her in.

He added that in the Echo report, the Japanese Health Minister blamed all the problems on pandering to politically populist measures.

“My job is to make sure we don’t walk into that hole,” Mr Khaw said.

Singapore has already “done a lot” for long-term care.

“If it’s not enough, we will do much more,” he promised.

He also said that people must do their part too, by staying healthy and, if necessary, changing their lifestyles.

salma@sph.com.sg

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