Group proposes limiting health insurance costs

The Swiss health care system is renowned for its high standards - and high costs swissinfo C Helmle

An interest group has launched a campaign to curb spiralling health insurance costs in Switzerland.

This content was published on February 5, 2002 - 20:03

The group, the Association of Insured and Health Care Providers, has begun collecting signatures to force a nationwide vote on the issue. The initiative comes as politicians are being urged to rein in health care expenses.

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

For 2002 alone, the hike for the mandatory basic coverage amounted to nearly ten per cent more than the previous year.

The cost of premiums varies considerably from region to region. Many families and people with low incomes spend so much of their budget for health care premiums, that they cannot afford optional coverage for additional benefits.

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

The interior minister, Ruth Dreifuss, whose portfolio includes health issues, last December admitted that current laws, in force since 1996, have not succeeded in curbing health costs. But Dreifuss said the laws guaranteed quality health care and fairer distribution of the financial burdens.

The Swiss health sector is financed mainly by private health insurance. People are required to purchase mandatory policies for basic health insurance, but individuals can also buy optional coverage. Only about 20 per cent of the population is covered by this additional insurance.

High quality, high costs

The Swiss health care system is renowned for its high standards, but it is among the most expensive in the world.

Switzerland spends more on health care than most other industrialised countries, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Latest available figures show the overall cost increased by 3.5 per cent on average from 1996 to 1999, which represents a rise to SFr41.6 billion ($24.5 billion) in 1999.

The Swiss rank third after the United States and Germany for health expenditures as a share of Gross Domestic Product, and they are in second place when the expenses are measured in per capita terms.

There is a consensus in Switzerland that the costs of providing health care are unacceptably high, but opinions differ considerably on how the costs can be limited.

Some proposals by political parties include tying health insurance coverage, in part, to policy holders' income, or limiting the services covered by mandatory health insurance.

Some of the failed proposals included changing the funding system of hospitals, reducing the cost of medications by allowing more non-brand drugs.

Fewer doctors

Parliament is debating a government plan to amend the 1996 health insurance law, which attempted to slow down the growth in health expenses. One of the most controversial proposals under discussion is limiting the number of medical doctors in Switzerland.

The number of practising physicians has more than doubled over the past three decades to nearly 14,000, and the number of pharmacies in Switzerland has increased steadily over the same period, according to the information service of the Swiss pharmaceutical industry, Interpharma.

The federal authorities are also attempting to introduce a new nationwide system of medical fees.

by Urs Geiser

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