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The government of Singapore has covered the medical bills of COVID-19 patients during the pandemic. But it says that unvaccinated people will soon be on their own.
Those who are “optionally not vaccinated” will have to start paying for their own COVID-19 treatment from December 8, the health ministry announced Monday, citing the pressure they are putting on the national health care system.
“Currently, unvaccinated individuals make up a significant majority of those in need of intensive hospital care, contributing disproportionately to the strain on our health care resources,” it said in a statement.
So far, the government is covering the cost of COVID-19 care for all Singaporeans, permanent residents and long-term pass holders, with the exception of those who tested positive after returning from an overseas trip.
“This was to avoid financial considerations that would add to public uncertainty and concern when COVID-19 was an emerging and unknown disease,” it explained, adding that this system will continue to apply to “the majority who have been vaccinated.. until the COVID-19-19 situation is more stable.”
The policy change means that on or after December 8, the government will charge all unvaccinated COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals and designated as “COVID-19 treatment facilities.” Those patients can still use their regular health care financing arrangements to pay their bills where appropriate.
There are a few exceptions. People who don’t qualify for vaccination — such as children under 12 and those with medical exemptions — will still have their medical bills reimbursed by the government. And people who have been partially vaccinated won’t be charged until December 31 to give them time to complete the full series.
Specifically, from January 1, the government will only foot the bill for those Singaporeans (including permanent residents and long-term pass holders) who have been fully vaccinated and have not traveled recently.
“Our hospitals really prefer not to bill these patients at all, but we need to send out this important signal, urging everyone to get vaccinated if you qualify,” Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said Monday.
Much of Singapore’s population has been vaccinated
Singapore has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. By Sunday, 85% of the population had been fully vaccinated and 18% had received booster shots, according to data from the Ministry of Health.
The health minister has credited the hard work of vaccination teams with reducing the number of unvaccinated seniors from 175,000 in early August to fewer than 64,000.
“Had it not been for this reduction, our hospitals and ICUs would have been overwhelmed today,” he added.
Singapore had 1,725 recorded hospital admissions as of Monday, with an intensive care unit occupancy rate of 68.5%. The Department of Health has also looked at the difference in cases between those who have been fully vaccinated and those who have been partially or not vaccinated at all.
In the past seven days, the number of seriously ill cases that were fully vaccinated and not fully vaccinated was 0.5 and 5.2 per 100,000 inhabitants, respectively. Over the same period, the number of fully vaccinated and under-vaccinated cases that died was 0.1 and 0.9 per 100,000 population, respectively. Those numbers were significantly higher for seniors.
It’s part of a bigger shift in Singapore’s COVID strategy
Singapore has seen an increase in cases in recent months and decided in October to abandon its “zero-COVID strategy” and learn to co-exist with the virus.
Officials said on Oct. 20 they would extend their plan for another month, with a mid-term review. Their Monday announcement on COVID-19 medical coverage also said the growth of new cases had slowed, easing certain restrictions as a result.
For example, up to five fully vaccinated people from the same household can eat together at a diner and take steps to simplify travel protocols.
The government also said it would direct “the resumption of more activities” such as sports, meetings and conferences for those fully vaccinated, subject to additional rapid testing requirements.
Unvaccinated people are not offered those same options.
“As for individuals who do not want to take any of the vaccines, we will need to have safe controls in place that distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated,” the Ministry of Health explained. “This is to protect the unvaccinated, and also to preserve our capacity for care.”
This story originally appeared on the morning edition live blog.