Reduced Funding for COVID-19: Patients Need to Shoulder a Portion of Treatment Costs

It is unreasonable to continue generous support for medical expenses that began as part of emergency measures to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. The government should carefully explain to the public that patients must bear a certain portion of the financial burden.

The government has decided to scale back its funding for COVID-19 treatment.

In May, when COVID-19 was downgraded to Category V under the Infectious Diseases Law, the government reviewed its across-the-board funding policy for COVID-19 treatment and stated that patients must partly meet related medical expenses. Beginning in October, patients will be asked to shoulder the burden for COVID-19 drugs.

When the disease began spreading in 2020, COVID-19 engendered fear among many people as an unknown infectious disease. The government’s generous financial support, and the fact that patients were able to receive medical care without worrying about costs, helped curbed the spread of the malaise to a certain extent.

However, medical spending in the nation has continued to rise, due to the aging of the population, in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fiscal 2022, medical institutions received expenses totaling a record ¥46 trillion, marking a 5.5% increase on the figure for fiscal 2019 — the year before the pandemic started.

Medical expenses are largely financed by taxes and health insurance premiums. If expenses continue to balloon, the burden on the public will inevitably increase. It is untenable to continue increasing public expenditures; there must be a return to measures that reflect normal times.

Patients will be asked to pay a portion of the cost for COVID-19 drugs from October. The upper limit will depend on the percentage of costs to be paid at the counter under the public health insurance program. For example, people who are required to pay 30% of the medical fee— including working-age and elderly individuals with a certain level of income — will be required to pay ¥9,000.

Recently, there have been many cases of mild illnesses and people recover spontaneously. The government likely concluded that scaling back public funding for expensive drugs would have a limited impact.

The government also plans to reduce the money it allots to medical institutions to secure hospital beds kept open to accept COVID-19 patients. Support for this purpose will be limited to beds for patients with moderate or severe symptoms.

Although this system was effective in securing beds for COVID-19 treatment, there were cases in which fees were paid to hospitals even though they did not accept COVID-19 patients. The government must strive to fully grasp such patient-acceptance issues.

COVID-19 patient numbers have been rising since the start of September. It is likely difficult for the government to convey the gravity of the situation to the public since it no longer monitors case numbers, and instead makes fixed-point observations based on reports from designated medical institutions.

The central and local governments need to watch for infectious outbreaks, while alerting residents, and strengthen countermeasures when such events occur.

Patients with mild COVID symptoms can keep the disease under control with antipyretic agents, among other drugs. At one point, however, such medications became difficult to obtain. The government must encourage the pharmaceutical industry to strengthen its production system.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 17, 2023)