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Achieving universal health coverage in Hong Kong

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Cheuk Nam Wong and Keith YK Tin, of the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong, have written an assessment of Hong Kong’s progress towards universal health coverage for GNHE.

You can read the full assessment here.

 

The authors’ main conclusions are:

  • Hong Kong is a good example of a progressive health financing system. This is because there is a relatively large tax-financed, public health system that shields those with low incomes from out-of-pocket payments. It also requires the rich to pay more tax, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of income. Equally importantly, almost no-one in Hong Kong lives in poverty and health outcomes are good across the various socio-economic quintiles.
  • These features account for why a relatively high level of out-of-pocket expenditure (around a third of total health care financing) does not have a negative equity impact on vertical and horizontal equity. These payments are mainly made by the rich who have the ability to purchase health care services in the private sector.
  • In terms of efficiency, over the last decade total health expenditure in Hong Kong was amongst the lowest as a percentage of GDP compared with OECD countries. Despite this low level of spending, Hong Kong’s health care system achieved service quality and health outcomes that are outstanding by global standards (including the longest life expectancies and lowest infant mortality rates).
  • Further, given its universally accessible public sector, adverse selection in Hong Kong is virtually non-existent. Moral hazard is limited to the private system. Thus, one study suggested that third-party coverage in Hong Kong, be it through public entitlement or private insurance, mostly facilitated access that met genuine health need rather than encouraged inappropriate overuse of services. A supply-driven public sector with an effective referral system, and high out-of-pocket co-payments for private services, probably explain these observations.
  • Hong Kong does not fare as well in terms of equitable access to health services, however. There is pro-rich inequity in the delivery of general outpatient care (but not specialist care) and very marginally for inpatient care, when utilisation is considered in relation to need.
  • With respect to future reforms, the setting up of a closely regulated voluntary private health insurance scheme is a priority on government’s agenda. The government is currently going through a public consultation process but will have to overcome public scepticism and clarify the need for such a scheme as part of a sustainable model of health financing. Should the voluntary health insurance scheme be implemented, it can be expected that personal contributions will play a more important role in the financing of the Hong Kong health system in future, and facilitate risk cross-subsidies so that access to health care is improved.
  • However, no country in the world has reached universal population coverage based mainly on voluntary prepayments. Voluntary prepayment for private health expenditure does not diminish people’s demands for more public spending on health, and compulsory prepayments are essential for health financing to be sustainable, be it in the form of various taxes or mandatory health insurance. Hong Kong is not likely to be an exception. It has taken time for citizens to realise that the current system is not financially sustainable without help from mandatory prepayment.
  • The most pressing question therefore seems to be whether the share of the gross domestic product going to taxes should be increased, thereby allowing greater budget allocations to the health sector. An argument against this would be that this might lead to under-funding of other social pillars such as education, housing, and social assistance. In addition, in the past Hong Kong has made the political choice for low tax regime and stringent controls on government expenditure. In fact, when scaled against the public revenue base, Hong Kong’s public spending on health is only slightly lower than other comparable economies.
  • Apart from these questions around financing, there are two other challenges to universal health coverage. First, an ageing population puts pressure not only on the provision of health care services but also the financing mechanism driven by tax revenue. In future years, less people will be working and thus paying tax to support a health system that will be taking care of more people.
  • Second, demographic issues are further complicated by the Hong Kong government’s lack of autonomy in immigration control. A continuous population influx from mainland China will exert pressure on Hong Kong’s health system. The number of immigrants from the mainland is difficult to forecast as it is subject to policy changes that are unpredictable and are out of the Hong Kong government’s control. It is difficult to devise long-term plans for the health system if population forecasts are not accurate.
  • Finally, the extent to which government health expenditure is accepted by the public hinges on the accountability of the government. As shown by recent protests, the government does not enjoy the support of the whole population. When citizens have little confidence in the government, every policy that the government tries to put forward prompts a reaction which is not always positive. As a result, attempts to implement health reforms in Hong Kong have been made over more than a decade, but changes that have the potential to improve the health system are yet to materialise.

Wong CN,  Tin KYK. 2015. Universal health coverage assessment: Hong Kong. Global Network for Health Equity (GNHE). Available at: http://gnhe.org.