Saturday, January 26, 2013

Health Care in Singapore

I've had the good fortune to be invited by the Singapore Centre for Biomedical Ethics to do a week of teaching about health system ethics. Right now I'm at Heathrow airport in London, in between the Boston to|London and  London to Singapore legs of my trip.

Although there's been a lot of interest in Singapore among health policy cognoscenti, I'd been in the dark about the Singapore system until I started preparing for my visit. My impression thus far is that the People's Action Party, which has governed since independence in 1965, sees health care as (a) a crucial contributor to well-being but (b) largely an individual responsibility to provide for oneself and one's family, and (c) not a right the state is responsible for fulfilling.

When Singapore became independent in 1965 it was impoverished, with a life expectancy of not much more than 60. The government's initial emphasis was on the determinants of population health - housing, clean water, jobs, and education. On the basis of their vigorous action, health and mortality improved markedly. In 1984 they introduced a mandatory medical savings account program - "Medisave" - in which all working people, including the self employed, contributed 6-8% of income to their "Central Provident Fund" account, to be used for their own medical care and for family members (spouse, children, parents and grandparents). In the 1990s the government introduced an insurance scheme ("Medishield") and a means tested fund for low income folks ("Medifund"). But there's still a very strong emphasis on individual responsibility and paying a fair share of the cost, even for the poor. (For information about the Central Provident Fund and the system of "3 Ms", see here .)

I've been told the Singaporean government sees "insurance" in a negative light. "Insurance" connotes dependency on the state and abdication of personal responsibility. In the U.S. the frequent comment that our health system is so out of control because the population lacks "skin in the game" comes from the same moral and economic perspective. As a dyed in the wool liberal I'm a staunch believer in a universal system - either something like Medicare for all or guaranteed access to strictly regulated health plans. The framework of values in Singapore is jarring for me, but their outcomes appear to be terrific, in terms of health indices and a much less costly system than we have in the U.S.

Since I recurrently criticize conservatives for what I describe as their "theological" commitment to market solutions, to be consistent I have to challenge my own liberal theology on this visit to Singapore. Stay tuned

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