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Cabinet debates rising health insurance costs

Healthcare costs have outstripped inflation for several years running

(Keystone)

The cabinet has met in private to discuss what to do about spiralling health insurance costs in Switzerland.

For many years, health premiums have risen by considerably more than the rate of inflation, an average of more than six per cent annually since 1996, according to federal statistics.

In 2002 alone, mandatory basic coverage was hiked by an average of nearly ten per cent compared with the previous year. Health insurers are already warning that next year's rises could top that.

A few weeks ago, the health insurer, Supra, won permission from Bern to increase its premiums from ten to 15 per cent from July 1. This is the first time since laws governing health insurance into force in 1996 that a major insurer taken such action.

Cabinet ministers, who met behind closed doors at the converted Ittingen convent in canton Thurgau on Wednesday, discussed the issue along with Switzerland's impending entry into the United Nations.

The issue of health insurance came to the boil last December when interior minister Ruth Dreifuss, whose portfolio includes health issues, admitted that the current laws had not succeeded in curbing health costs.

Quality health care

However, she argued that the laws guaranteed quality healthcare and a fairer distribution of the financial burden.

A series of attempts to halt rising health care costs, put forward by pressure groups, political parties and federal authorities have failed or had limited impact in recent years.

These include linking health insurance coverage to policyholders' income, using SFr500 million in unused federal subsidies to reduce child premiums and reducing the cost of medications.

One of the most controversial plans under discussion is limiting the number of medical doctors in Switzerland.

While Dreifuss, who is known to favour income-linked premiums, is understood to face opposition from some of her cabinet colleagues, she appears to have found an ally in the shape of the Senate.

Senators debating plans to revise the laws have already decided that no one should spend more than eight per cent of their salary on health insurance.

Concrete decisions

Wednesday's cabinet meeting was billed as being an opportunity for Dreifuss to bring her colleagues up to speed on developments. The House of Representatives is not due to debate the laws until the autumn.

The Swiss health care sector is financed mainly by private health insurance and people are required to purchase mandatory policies for basic health insurance. However, individuals can also buy optional coverage.

The sector is renowned for its high standards, but it is among the most expensive in the world. Latest available figures show the overall cost increased by 3.5 per cent on average from 1996 to 1999 - up to SFr41.6 billion ($24.5 billion) in 1999.

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