Saturday, April 16, 2011 York Chow warns on altering maternity rules

York Chow warns on altering maternity rules

April 12, 2011
Ella Lee and Elaine Yau

The government would have to seek legal advice if it wanted to give priority in the use of obstetric services to mainland wives of Hong Kong men, the health chief said yesterday.

Dr York Chow Yat-ngok was speaking after legislators passed a non-binding motion stating that while public hospitals should always serve local mothers first, wives of Hong Kong residents should get priority in using any spare capacity.

Chow, secretary for food and health, said legal advice would be needed on whether and how Hospital Authority staff could check the marriage certificates of non-local women. "Our current policy only targets the status of mothers, not the status of their husbands. It would be difficult for staff to check this information," he said.

At present, local mothers have priority at public obstetric services. Non-local mothers, with or without a Hong Kong husband, can book on a first-come-first-served basis.

The motion was passed at a meeting of the Legislative Council health services panel. Legislators were concerned that the number of babies born to mainland women without a Hong Kong husband rose sharply from just 620 in 2001 to 32,653 last year - a 52-fold increase in 10 years.

Of about 40,000 babies born to mainland women last year, the husbands of only 6,169 were Hong Kong permanent residents.

Chow declined to commit the government to following the legislators' call. "Frontline staff at the Hospital Authority identify a patient who is entitled to Hong Kong's medical service subsidy according to his identity card," he said. "If there is anything that requires further verification of certificates and so on, it will be a difficult task for many of them. We have to seek various opinions, including legal opinion, before we can actually decide whether that can be done."

In 2007, the authority increased the maternity package fee for non- local mothers from HK$20,000 to HK$39,000, and for non-booked cases to HK$48,000, compared with HK$100 a day for local mothers.

A person familiar with the situation said the government had been cautious about giving priority to non-local wives of Hong Kong men because of the complex legal implications, especially when a group of Hong Kong husbands is seeking judicial review of the HK$39,000 fee imposed on their mainland wives.

"If a new policy recognises mainland mothers married to Hong Kong people should have a priority next to local mothers, it will then be very difficult for the authority to charge them the same as women who have no Hong Kong husbands for obstetric services," the person said.

He said a change of policy for medical services might have implications in other areas such as education and social services. "Changing entitlement involves a macro population policy; it is a very complex issue."

The panel's motion, moved by Civic Act-up's Cyd Ho Sau-lan, was supported by panel members from the major political camps.

Social welfare sector lawmaker Cheung Kwok-che said: "The government should take care of the mainland women who have a Hong Kong spouse; their husbands are also taxpayers."

The influx of mainlanders has stretched local obstetric and paediatric services. The government plans to set a quota for non-local women at all private and public hospitals by next month. The occupancy rate of public neonatal intensive care units rose from an average 94 per cent last year to 108 per cent in February.

The Hospital Authority said on Friday it would suspend all obstetric bookings by non-local women until the end of the year to preserve capacity for local women. A concern group formed by senior public doctors has called for a ban on mainland women without a Hong Kong husband.

Chow said the government could control the market by not approving new obstetric beds at private hospitals. It will meet private operators again before the end of the month to set quotas for individual hospitals.

Health care sector legislator Joseph Lee Kok-long said the government should devote more resources to the Department of Health because many mainland mothers took their babies to its clinics for health assessments and vaccinations.

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