Spending on healthcare expected to rise sharply

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/ANN) - Singapore Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat says it will go up by at least S$3 billion (US$2.2 billion) by 2020 because of the ageing population and technological advances.

Singapore may have to foot a bigger health bill to care for its ageing population.

Government expenditure on healthcare is expected to "rise quite sharply" in the next three to five years, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday (Dec 6).

He expects it to go up by at least S$3 billion (US$2.23 billion) by 2020 from the current levels.

To put that in perspective, the total budget for the Ministry of Health (MOH) in 2010 was S$4 billion. In this year's Budget, Mr Heng allocated it S$10 billion.

A jump of another S$3 billion by 2020 would mean that in 10 years, the health budget will climb to more than three times its 2010 level.

After a tour of Changi General Hospital (CGH) and St Andrew's Community Hospital (SACH) yesterday, Mr Heng said: "As medical technology improves, as our population ages, the demands will grow, and the need to provide for that will also grow." He predicted an annual MOH budget of "at least" S$13 billion from 2020.

Professor Euston Quah, head of economics at Nanyang Technological University, said rising healthcare costs will mean higher taxes.

He said: "It is one major reason since, increasingly, healthcare is subsidised for greater number of eligible people.

"Income tax and corporate taxes, which are direct taxes, are low in Singapore relative to other countries, but indirect taxes (GST and other non-earnings-based taxes) make up for it."

In his Budget speech in February, Mr Heng had said that part of a bigger healthcare bill will be covered by new taxes or the Government raising present taxes.

Dr Chia Shi-Lu, head of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health, said: "Spending on healthcare will comprise an increasing proportion of net government expenditure over the next decade.

"When taxes do increase, it is good to know that a significant proportion of our tax dollars is going towards healthcare, which is a public good and necessity."

Mr Heng said the S$3 billion increase is "just an initial estimate", and will depend on "how well we are able to manage in the next few years".

He added: "It is something Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and I continue to discuss, getting our projections right and getting our resources ready to meet that need."

At CGH and SACH, he saw how technology enhanced care. He was shown the bed transporter which reduces the number of people needed to move a bed with a patient on it from two persons to one.

He saw how a new technology can assess wounds in seconds, instead of the 30 minutes a nurse would normally take.

He also saw how technology is used to provide better rehabilitation for patients, and how their vital signs such as blood pressure and heart rates are automatically entered into the system.

"What I am seeing is very encouraging, how the hospital itself is taking action, first to upgrade its operations, then to upgrade the skills of its people, and doing this in a very holistic way," he said after spending half a day there.

Mr Heng admired the healthcare staff's attitude of "How can I be more innovative? How can I improve outcome?"

He said: "That spirit of not being satisfied with what we have today, but thinking of what we can do better tomorrow, and having the willingness to try, that is critical."