WHEN Mr S. Kalleychelbon had a heart attack, his health was not his only worry.
After heart bypass surgery and two weeks of recovering in a B2-class ward in 2010, he racked up a hospital bill of about $20,000.
The operations manager had no insurance coverage - not even the basic MediShield.
His wife, a childcare teacher, and daughter, who was about to graduate from university, had to chip in to pay the amount in full.
"At that time, we really never thought of insurance," the 57-year-old lamented. "My daughter was still schooling, so we had a lot of other things to think about."
However, when MediShield Life kicks in next year, someone in Mr Kalleychelbon's shoes will bear a lighter burden.
All Singaporeans will be covered by the scheme for life, leaving no one without at least basic insurance coverage.
Patients will also be able to make larger claims than before, cushioning the blow of large hospital bills arising from common conditions like stroke or cancer.
Such bills are major concerns for many, said principal medical social worker Tan Boon Cheng, who works for the National Heart Centre Singapore.
"Some patients may not be financially prepared to cope with the hospital bill," she said, adding that many may run out of money in their Medisave accounts or reach the maximum withdrawal limit. "That is when they have to make cash payments, and some may find it hard to manage."
The cost of outpatient chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments, for example, can run into the thousands.
Ms Anna Li, 40, paid nearly $15,000 in total for both treatments after she was diagnosed with breast cancer last year.
This was in addition to bills for doctors' consultations and tests to ascertain the right treatment.
The majority of her bills were paid for by Medisave and Medifund, or were claimable under MediShield.
"I am very lucky that I got medical assistance and, so far, I have not forked out any cash," Ms Li said. "But not all patients have managed to get that."
Under MediShield Life, cancer patients undergoing these treatments could pay less than half what they are paying now.
But better coverage means premiums will go up, although two in three Singaporean households will be eligible for subsidies to help with the increase.
The MediShield Life Review Committee also proposed that premium increases should be capped at 3 per cent for those currently insured under MediShield.
One man looking forward to next year's changes is Mr Jag Kuo, whose 74-year-old father was recently diagnosed with lung cancer.
Last year, his father was also warded for a lung infection for nearly a month and ran up a final bill of close to $10,000. Most of this was paid for using his father's Medisave funds.
"The bill for us was manageable," said the bank compliance officer. "But it was still a substantial amount."
Mr Kuo, 35, knows premiums will increase, but still welcomes the additional coverage.
"After all, everything comes with a price," he said.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on June 7, 2014
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