The Hong Kong government has pledged an extra HK$3.6 billion a year for the city's public hospitals to improve staff retention, services and research, and given health authorities coping with the coronavirus epidemic a HK$970 million cash injection.
In Wednesday's 2020/21 budget, Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po said combating the novel coronavirus Covid-19, which has infected 89 people in Hong Kong and killed two, was a priority for the administration.
"Currently, the most pressing tasks for the government are to control the epidemic and stabilise our economy," he said.
"We should plan ahead to enhance the capability of our health care system in preventing and treating infectious diseases. I will provide resource support on this front."
The cash boost came two weeks after the government created a HK$30 billion war chest to fight the growing health crisis, handing an immediate HK$4.7 billion to public hospitals to cover subsidies for staff accommodation, and extra personal protective equipment, as well as funding mask production, procurement and innovation, and supporting industries affected by the epidemic.
A feature of Chan's blueprint for the financial year ahead was the bolstering of the city's overall health budget, the third largest public expenditure after education and social welfare, to a total of HK$97.7 billion, representing an 11.2 per cent year-on-year increase from last year's HK$87.9 billion.
The government has also swollen the Hospital Authority's coffers by HK$4.1 billion to HK$76.6 billion, where its recurrent account increased by HK$3.6 billion to HK$75 billion, a 35 per cent rise from its 2017/18 financial position.
Of the extra HK$3.6 billion in funding for the authority, which manages the city's 43 public hospitals and institutions, a lion's share of HK$566 million would go towards improving staff retention at the agency.
Some HK$970 million has also been earmarked for Department of Health on anti-contagion spending, paying for special remunerations, protective gear, as well as extra facilities and equipment, such as food and temperature screening devices at the department's quarantine centres and border terminals.
The department will be injected with a total of HK$11 billion, HK10.9 billion of it recurrent, marking a year-on-year increase of HK$500 and HK$400 million respectively.
In order to tackle staff shortages in public hospitals, a government source said the extra money for the authority would pay for 200 more consultant positions over five years, more flexible contracts for retiring doctors so they could work until the age of 65, allowance for registered nurses with special qualifications, and the recruitment of additional overseas-trained doctors under the limited registration scheme.
Other big ticket items on the spending list are HK$17 million for research development enhancing the big data analysis and capability of the public hospitals, and HK$16 million for the development of genetic and genomic services, specifically colorectal cancer within family clusters.
"The money would enable and improve early diagnosis and treatment of diseases and reduce the burden on the public health care system in the long run," the source said.
Chan also loosened the purse strings and put more money into existing initiatives, to add about 400 hospital beds, and a total of 28,500 general outpatient clinic places, and some 6,000 specialist clinic spots in the Kowloon East and West, and New Territories East clusters.
"The social incidents and the novel coronavirus epidemic have affected the mental health of many people in Hong Kong," Chan said.
As a result, the finance minister said there would be an expansion of geriatric psychiatry and the Student Mental Health Support Scheme outreach programme, which will cover visits by nurses and clinical psychologists to some 150 schools, up from 90.
He also announced a HK$6 million pilot scheme for a new service protocol for children and adolescents with attention deficit or hyperactivity disorder, the details of which were yet to be finalised.
The Hospital Authority's chairman Henry Fan Hung-ling welcomed the budget.
"Faced with downward pressure in the economy, the government has still increased recurrent funding to the Hospital Authority, showing fully its commitment to the sustainable development of public healthcare," he said.
But Association of Private Medical Specialists President Dr Samuel Kwok Po-yin said private practitioners had been ignored in the budget.
"Private doctors have also seen a drop in patient numbers, as many have avoided clinics in fear of catching the coronavirus," he said. "Some relief measures like rental subsidies would be a great help, but sadly no support was given to the sector."
Medical sector lawmaker Dr Pierre Chan was unimpressed by the budget, saying the measures such as staff training, development of Chinese and primary medicine were just "a replay of old tunes".
He said the plan to retain retiring doctors would just "enrich the top and impoverish the bottom" and suggested retention of middle ranking staff was more needed.
He added more help should be offered to the private practitioners who have also been hit hard by the epidemic.
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