Saturday, March 22, 2008

Hard to swallow

I visited the Singapore General Hospital recently. The appointment was 11.30am, so after seeing the doctor at the Specialist Outpatient Client in Block 2, I put in the prescription at the Pharmacy just next to the SOC. I was pleasantly surprised that the pharmacy would take my handphone number so that it can SMS me when the medicine was ready for me to pick up. That was great because I could do lunch first instead of having to wait for my number to be called, which would take anything from 15 - 45 minutes, depending.

But lunch wasn't that great. I couldn't go far as I had to return to the pharmacy when the SMS from the pharmacy came in, so I settled at the KOPI cafeteria for lunch, just a stone's throw away. I was shocked. A 'economic rice' plate of 1 meat + 2 vege set me back by S$4.50. I can understand this kind of pricing if I were in a Shopping Centre Foodcourt operated by Kopitiam, or Koufu, of some similar operator. At these places, for what I ordered at KOPI, I'd probably have to pay S$4.00 at most. I noticed that many patrons at this cafeteria were senior citizens, couples, and I just thought that they could have found these prices forbidding. Some just ate a 'pau' and two 'siew mai' although it was lunch hour. I wondered if they didn't have appetite for the food or for the prices. Eat, a person must. It is not an option, like having a cup of coffee or a snack. The cafeteria was doing a roaring business. The queue at the 'economic rice' counter kept moving along, but never disappeared the whole 45 minutes I was there having, what else, my expensive lunch. And it wasn't because service was slow. Everybody behind the counter had their hands full, so much so that they didn't even notice me in front of their dessert counter. I gave up and took a cup of tea (which cost much less) instead, at another counter.

Why is food so expensive at a cafeteria located in a government hospital, I wondered? (OK, ok, its a 'restructured' hospital, but it isn't in the same category as say, Mount Elizabeth Hospital or Raffles Hospital, which are privately run hospitals. Restructured Hospitals in Singapore are still 100% owned by the government). Well, its no mystery, actually, These operators lease the place from the owner of the place - the hospital/government - at a certain tendered price. They probably bid high, and so have to charge more to recover their fixed rental cost. Of course, the biggest beneficiary is the hospital/government - which probably rakes in big bucks just from rentals of cafeteria space. It would appear that that's the other big business that government hospitals are into these days, besides charging huge fees for the beds, the medicine and the medical care. This reminds me of how when McDonalds, the hamburger chain, started in the US, it was more a real estate business than a hamburger business through an inspired approach to buy its stores and the land they sit on and rent them out to the food business. Even today it is doing the same thing. (see McDonald's Commands a Real Estate Empire in Russia, Ray Croc's McDonalds). But I digress.

The government does provide subsidies towards these medical related services (at least for citizens), I grant you. But 'taxing' visitors to the hospital indirectly at such 'top-end' high prices, particularly the old (and likely economically inactive) among us, for a simple meal? This is not a Shenton Way crowd here, man. I mean, nobody goes to a hospital for a gourmet lunch or dinner right? Even KF Seetoh of Makansutra, in reviewing hospital food, wrote about the food from the hospital's kitchen and not those from the public eateries. So food is not why people visit the hospital. I cannot but begin to wonder what kind of deal people, and especially the older ones among us, are getting. Another example of government 'give and take', I suppose.

It is said that in Singapore, you'd better not get sick. I say that in Singapore, you'd better not visit the hospital on an empty stomach, especially during lunch time. And if you cannot help it, take along a sandwich from home or a neighbourhood bread shop. It'll go down your tummy more easily.

Image source: Author: melodi2


Anonymous said...

I work in a hospital and agree that food can be expensive there. However, I fail to see the point of your blog post. Do you expect prices to be close to that of a neighbourhood kopi tiam just because the food store is located in a hospital, or do you expect food store owners to do charity for patients and their relatives? Why not go a step further and suggest that the 7-11 stores, Delifrance stores, Begawan Solo stores and Prima Deli stores to give 10% off all their items since they are located in a hospital setting?

Epilogos said...

I expect food in a public hospital to be cheaper. The reason why the price of food is close to those charged in places within the CBD or large shopping malls is because those who run the hospital are all too happy to get 'market' rates for their premises, forgetting the 'social functions' of these places. Imagine if the same principle were applied to tendering out canteens in schools and these operators begin to charge CBD-level prices, there would be an outcry from parents, especially those trying to make ends meet.

If I have not been clear, let me re-express myself thus: the government appears to be making a huge profit from renting public hospital premises to operators like restaurants and cafes. By so doing, it has added to the hardship of the people, especially those already burdened with medical bills, which can easily pile up even with a one to two day's stay. I know this first hand, and second hand too, from a friend, who even as I write, has an infant son struggling for his survival in an incubator.

I don't really care what 7-11 or Bengawan Solo charges for its products - I can choose not to buy anything from them. But lunch is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Either I pay what these cafes/restaurants charge, or I walk out to Chinatown for a much more affordable meal. But when you are on 'hospital business', or you are old and infirmed, or you are visiting a critically ill patient, this option is not available to you. You just have to stomach the high prices, or eat less, or not at all.

The premise of a public hospital is to provide for the common man, the people who are not blessed by wealth and means. We do not ask for outright charity but for the financial burden to be lessened over a situation often beyond our control - even in as simple an expense as a meal - by collecting less rent from the food operators and mandating a price ceiling - much as what is done in public schools .

Now somewhere in my heart, I feel that something is amiss if this situation does not improve for the common man.

Anonymous said...

I fully agreed with you on the high price of food in hospital. My dad was hospitalized for a few days two weeks ago and I alone spend like closed to $10 for lunch and dinner a day.