The cabinet has agreed on a series of reforms aimed at tackling spiralling health insurance costs in Switzerland.
At the end of their meeting at the converted Ittingen convent in canton Thurgau, ministers decided on a three-stage reform of the health insurance system, the interior minister, Ruth Dreifuss, said.
Dreifuss said the cabinet had concluded that the current health insurance law was basically good, but that factors such as advances in medicine and demographic changes had pushed costs up too far.
"We know that we haven't got enough control over the costs," Dreifuss said after the meeting.
As a first step towards halting the growth in premiums, the cabinet plans to reduce recourse to expensive treatments through a system of second opinions, Dreifuss said.
Burden on families
In the medium term, the cabinet is concerned with easing the burden on families. Although they rejected a reduction in child insurance premiums proposed by Dreifuss, ministers said the issue should be addressed during the revision of the health insurance law currently underway.
As a third step, the cabinet asked the interior ministry to examine a series of further measures to reduce costs, including better hospital planning and a redistribution of costs, Dreifuss said.
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 cover increased 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.
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.
The Swiss health 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.