SINGAPORE - When Singapore's pioneer generation started working, there was no Medisave, no MediShield and no Medifund. Salaries were low and people had to retire at an earlier age.
As a result, they may not have saved enough to pay for their medical care.
Given these circumstances, the health-care benefits provided by the Pioneer Generation Package give them what they need most, said health-care and ageing experts as well as MPs yesterday.
Said Dr Ng Wai Chong, medical director of the Hua Mei Centre for Successful Ageing: "In that era, not everybody had the good fortune of getting an education.
"Even if they worked hard, they may not have earned a lot or saved enough."
So, for many like retiree S. P. Chandrashagaran, 74, the benefits come in handy. The former caretaker wears a pacemaker and has used most of his Medisave funds on his medical bills.
Mr Chandrashagaran, like most of his generation, has no medical insurance.
For these pioneers, the package Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on Sunday will provide enhanced subsidies for outpatient treatment, additional annual Medisave top-ups and help with premiums for the new national insurance scheme, MediShield Life.
The health-care benefits are to recognise their contributions in building modern Singapore.
Those who qualify must be 65 or older by the end of this year. They must also have become Singapore citizens before 1987.
Mr Chandrashagaran's situation is typical of most from the pioneer generation, as they did not have enough in their Medisave accounts to pay for insurance premiums, said MP Chia Shi-Lu, a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health.
The 3M framework of Medisave, MediShield and Medifund was started only in 1984.
Those who suffer from chronic ailments and require frequent visits to the doctor will also benefit from the package, said MP Fatimah Lateef, as subsidies for outpatient treatment will be higher.
Amid the unanimous support for the package, there is, however, disagreement on whether everyone who qualifies should get the same amount of benefits.
MP Liang Eng Hwa feels it should be equally distributed to all: "This is not a social welfare assistance package, so we should not distinguish by housing type or income."
But Ms Eleanor Yap, editor of seniors' magazine Ageless Online, said well-off pioneers should give their benefits to the needy.
Similarly, Dr Kanwaljit Soin, past president of Women's Initiative for Ageing Successfully, said a minimum amount should be given to all, but with extra top-ups for the more needy.
As for the cost of the package, economist Phua Kai Hong put the likely bill at under $4 billion a year, roughly equal to Singapore's annual health expenditure.
It is still a large sum, but it will decrease each year, he added, as the number of pioneers dwindles.
Mr Liang, deputy chairman of the Finance Government Parliamentary Committee, said the annual sum would be "manageable".
"We should be able to pay for the package through revenue generated from taxes. If we continue to grow the economy to generate more revenue, then we won't have to increase taxes."
WHO IS ELIGIBLE?
THE Pioneer Generation Package will be for all Singaporeans who will be at least 65 years old by the end of this year. That means they would have been born in 1949 or earlier.
Those not born here must have become Singapore citizens before 1987. This is to include all those who were citizens when Singapore became independent in 1965, or shortly after.
The reason for this is that the manual historical records of the years before 1987 are not complete with regard to registration dates of some citizens. Hence, all who became citizens before that year will be included.
WHAT THE PIONEERS SAY
MRS MARY CHEW, 76, RETIRED ADMINISTRATIVE CLERK
"I never expected that the Government would consider what I've done a 'contribution' (to the country).
As a person, you do what you can; any reward is secondary. This is a privilege and a surprise. I've a pension so I'm fine as far as medical bills are concerned. Still, it's good to have this package to fall back on."
MR PHILIP CHEW, 78, RETIRED PUBLIC HEALTH OFFICER
"In those days, we, the pioneer generation, had very low salaries and low Central Provident Fund (CPF) (sums).
I used to pay my MediShield premiums using CPF, but since two years ago, I needed to top up with a few hundred dollars out of my pocket.
Without this package's top-ups to my Medisave account (which can be used for MediShield Life premiums), maybe I could have afforded to pay my premiums for only another 10 more years.
MRS JAYAMANI CHANDRASHAGARAN, 69, RETIRED NURSE
"I am already well covered by my insurance. But not everybody is as lucky as me...
The Government should find those who are really in need and help them more.
They shouldn't help everybody, some are already well-to-do."
MR JOHN MORRICE, 80, SINGAPORE ARMED FORCES VETERAN
"I get full medical benefits under my pension scheme, which covers my wife as long as I live. Once I pass on, my wife loses everything. But now with this package, at least when I die, she will be covered under that."
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