BACHELOR Chong Yow Fook wasn’t the only one who suffered when he fell ill and was diagnosed with Stage Three cancer at the age of 54.
As a result of his illness, family members have had to endure a different form of suffering – financial hardship.
Five years on, Chong’s younger sister and her husband are still struggling to find the money to take care of him as well as to foot the never-ending medical bills.
His brother-in-law, Yong Chee Chuan, 60, said the family had used over RM60,000 of whatever little EPF savings Chong had as an odd job worker, borrowed money and asked for donations for his surgery, chemotherapy and nasal pus removal procedures.
“All of it actually cost money we do not have. My wife and I are hawkers and prior to this, we were already struggling to survive.
“With him still needing nasal pus removal procedures and medication, I really have no idea what’s going to happen when the money from well-wishers dries up,” said Yong, noting that not all procedures and medication are provided by government hospitals or clinics.
The family’s situation is sadly, a common scenario in Malaysia. In fact, it is becoming more prevalent as the cost of healthcare continues to rise.
It was reported by The Star earlier this month that Malaysians, a majority of whom do not have health or medical insurance, are at risk of financial ruin if nothing is done to address the country’s high rate of out-of-pocket payments for private-healthcare services.
According to Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam, Malaysians spend a total of RM45bil annually on healthcare expenditures, of which nearly RM36bil is paid with their own money or savings instead of some form of medical insurance.
Based on the estimates of international health organisations, any country with an out-of-pocket payment rate exceeding 15% to 20% has a higher risk of facing financial catastrophe.
Until the government figures out a solution to the problem, Yong said Malaysians only have two choices — to seek medical care at government healthcare facilities or get themselves insured.
“Because we could not afford private medical care, my brother-in-law had no choice but to wait for his turn to undergo surgery at a government hospital.
“Thank goodness, he was able to wait the six months but if he had medical insurance, then he wouldn’t have had to wait and we wouldn’t be in this situation right now,” he said.
“I think those who are at an eligible age and can afford it should not waste time in getting themselves insured.
“I’ve never been able to afford insurance coverage for myself or my children but after my brother-in-law’s case, I realise it’s only a small sacrifice to have to pay a hundred plus ringgit each month as compared to tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, in medical bills when one becomes ill.
“I’ve advised my two children who are already working to get themselves insured.
“I also got one of my younger children a medical card but that’s all I can afford right now.
“As for myself, I just have to take care of myself and make sure I don’t get sick,” he added.
Security systems consultant Mohd Salman Ismail, 39, feels that most people will say they can always seek treatment at government hospitals if they cannot afford private healthcare.
“But when a life-threatening situation presents itself or if it involves our parents or children, we will most definitely head straight to a private facility because we want our loved ones to get treated fast.
“We don’t want them to feel discomfort or risk anything going wrong due to delay,” he said.
Mohd Salman added that he personally witnessed his friends getting into financial difficulty as a result of having to settle their own medical bills or for family members.
“I think while the old are unable to buy any insurance, most young and middle aged people probably believe they are not susceptible to major illnesses.
“With that believe, many don’t feel the need to have insurance coverage. I was one of them until a close friend my age suffered a heart attack and required a bypass at the age of 36.
“His medical bill at a semi-private hospital came up to RM65,000 excluding follow up treatment and medication.
“And just recently, another friend of mine, two years my junior, was diagnosed with hypertension.
“Lucky for him, he is covered by insurance and he is working with a company that is generous enough to foot his high medicals bills.
“It’s fine if you are with a company like that but what if you’re stuck with a company that will kick you out any chance it gets because you’re critically ill and have become more of a burden than an asset,” said Mohd Salman.
With medical coverage from her employer as well as her husband’s company, 55-year-old Karen Goh feels she can delay in getting medical insurance to save money.
“My plan was to get myself a medical card a year prior to my retirement but then I had diabetes at the age of 46 and no insurance company will sell you a medical card after that.
“It’s a big regret because who knows what other illnesses I will get later on,” said Goh.
Having opted for early retirement due to poor health, Goh now seeks treatment at government hospitals.
“I think the outpatient care provided by our government clinics and hospitals is still quite satisfactory but it’s a long wait if one needs surgery, unless it’s an emergency,” Goh said.
“In hindsight, I’ve come to realise there are no guarantees that one will stay on with the same company until retirement.
“Also, not all companies pay for their employee’s hospitalisation,” she added.