Sun, Jan 02, 2005 - Page 3 News List

Public panel meets over funds crisis

INSURANCE DILEMMA The government faces a health-funding quagmire and is hoping a citizens' panel will make its policy changes easier to swallow

By Wang Hsiao-wen  /  STAFF REPORTER

As part of the mammoth effort to seek consensus on how to keep the national health insurance system afloat, the citizens' panel on insurance policy met for the first time yesterday. It will present recommendations on Jan. 22.

Whether the national health insurance scheme will stop covering minor illnesses like the common cold to drive down costs will be one of the urgent questions facing the 20 panelists.

"We are not coming to the table with any presuppositions in finding solutions to the financial quagmire. Every potential solution will be discussed," said Lin Kuo-ming (林國明), an associate professor at National Taiwan University, who helped organize the panel.

The scheme has been beset by financial difficulties for a considerable period. Yet the crisis is looming larger, with the elderly population predicted to skyrocket.

Government figures show that over eight years the number of people aged over 65 has increased by 23 percent, whereas medical expenditure has soared by a disproportionate 92 percent.

Due to the aging of the population and increased medical spending, the government allocated an additional NT$400 million to the scheme last year. A NT$420 million reserve for this year is also expected to dry up by March.

If current insurance rates and coverage remain unchanged, the national health insurance scheme's deficit will reach NT$12.9 billion by the end of this year and peak at NT$40 billion by the end of 2008, the government estimated.

During public meetings around the country last year, the government drew up 30 measures to increase insurance revenue and cut spending. Yet no consensus on which measures should be implemented has been hammered out.

Department of Health Director-General Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) said last week that the insurance scheme would stick to the spirit of "helping the minority and caring for patients with chronic and severe diseases."

Chen's comments were interpreted by some media outlets as an official attempt to save medical resources by asking people with minor ailments to pay for their own visit to the doctor.

Yet the government declined to comment on speculation that policy would change, possibly to maintain the impression it adopted a neutral stance during the two-day meeting of the citizens' panel.

"The aim of the meeting is to help people understand the intricacies of the financial situation. It is about helping people understand why sometimes their best wishes cannot be met -- for the sake of other people," said Louis Liu (劉在銓), a former general manager of the department of planning and evaluation, who lectured on the dilemma facing the insurance scheme yesterday afternoon.

The panelists will face an overflowing in-tray of problems. The major issue will be whether to raise insurance rates, narrow down the scope of insurance coverage or remove infectious conditions such as HIV and flu from the list of claimable ailments.

Meanwhile, doctors warned elderly people to keep warm as temperatures around the nation are expected to stay low for the next few days.

"We have seen more people suffering from sudden stroke," said Wong Wen-chang (翁文章) secretary-general of the Taiwan Stroke Society.

He said blood vessels contract in the cold and that blood flow is impaired when this happens.

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