Lung Pui-si, 73, once walked around looking for a dentist who accepted the vouchers. She visited six or seven dental clinics without finding one who would accept them.
While some elderly may prefer to use vouchers in private clinics for minor health problems, the limited number of providers has put them off using them.
The shortcomings of the system means vouchers have not achieved the desired aim of shifting elderly patients from public services to private services. In the meantime, the elderly also face difficulties when they use the public system.
The shortage of funds and doctors leaves public hospitals with no choice but to prioritise cases. Those who have non-urgent conditions will usually have to queue up for years for operations, or even just check-ups.
Lau Suk-ying, who is 84 and had cataracts, waited for three years for an operation. Her vision deteriorated and she could hardly see the moving cars on the roads. “When I went to the check-ups, the doctors always said my eyes were not ready and they could not perform the surgery,” Lau says.
Due to insufficient resources, doctors in public hospitals prefer not to operate immediately on cataract cases until they develop into the final stage. Lau eventually went to the private Precious Blood Hospital, where she only had to wait three days for an operation. She received a $5,000 subsidy from the government and had to find another $8,000 from her family and savings to pay the bill.
Apart from waiting times and fees, the distribution of hospitals and clinics are another concern when it comes to health care for the elderly. Wong Kam-choi, the chairman of the board of directors of Sik Sik Yuen, a charity that offers different medical services, is worried about reclusive elderly people who are reluctant to leave their homes.
Some elderly people have suffered strokes but do not seek therapy because they think that queuing up for half a day for a 10-minute therapy session is a waste of time and the cost of transportation.
Wong says the elderly often have to travel to different clinics for different ailments. He believes integrated clinics would spare them time and trouble.
Yet, despite all the problems with health services for the elderly, some are grateful for the support and subsidies they get from the government. For those who do not have family support or savings, especially those who receive Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA), public hospitals meet basic medical needs. Elderly recipients of CSSA are exempted from consultation fees and most prescription charges. They are also charged a lower dialysis fee and may even receive free dialysis.
As the territory ponders how it will provide quality health care for its growing population of senior citizens, Legislator Cheung Kwok-che says the crucial point is how the government views future elderly services. He says the elderly should not be viewed as a burden once they are no longer in the workforce. “How can society make use of their golden old years and knowledge to contribute is the question,” says Cheung. “That’s why basic medical protection is important.”