KUALA LUMPUR, March 6 ― Malaysians will now face potentially higher medical bills after Putrajaya allowed medical and dental practitioners to scale up their professional fees by up to 14.4 per cent, local dailies reported today.

Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam said yesterday the 14.4 per cent was the maximum percentage of increase permitted by the government, noting that the hike was reasonable as the inflation rate stands at about 23 per cent.

“Those (in the fee schedule) are the maximum rates. We are protecting the people from being charged exorbitantly by the private sector,” he was quoted saying in The Star's report today.

Dr Subramaniam said that the public should go to private facilities which charge reasonable rates.

The medical fee schedule was first regulated by the government in 2006 and the latest rates are the first changes made.

But Dr Subramaniam said the government does not regulate other fees such as accommodation, nursing care, use of equipment, operation room and drugs as the costs for running hospitals in different locations differ.

Referring to the new medical fee schedule which was gazetted last December as part of the Private Hospitals and Other Private Healthcare Facilities Regulations 2006, The Star pointed out that some patients' bills could possibly see a 200 per cent increase.

The Star cited consultation fees by general practitioners, which can now be in the range of RM30 to RM125, instead of staying at the old scale of RM 10 to RM35.

But the Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah was reported saying that the consultation fee hike was based on the cost of rentals in varying locations.

Dr Subramaniam also said the government had chosen not to allow an overall hike of 30 per cent as requested by the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA), and had stuck to 14.4 per cent instead.

But MMA president Datuk Dr NKS Tharmaseelan said that the 14.4 per cent increase was not enough to help doctors cope with inflation.

“Medical fees should be reviewed every five years, but since the last review in 2002, there has been no review for 12 years,” he was quoted as saying by the Chinese-language Sin Chew Daily.

He pointed out that consultation fees by doctors only amounted to a small portion of the entire medical bill, also saying that fewer doctors today ventured into private practice because of the low earnings.

In an illustration of how rising medicine costs were squeezing out private clinics, Sin Chew said that over 500 of such clinics had either closed down or been taken over by medical centre chains or businesses.

The vernacular newspaper’s report did not provide details on the period of closures and whether it was reflected nationwide.

Sin Chew said some doctors were seeing their earnings drop drastically, with the Medical Practitioners Coalition Association of Malaysia (MPCAM) saying that general practitioners in the Klang river area had experienced a slash in monthly earnings of RM40,000 to RM15,000.

Doctors are hard-pressed as they have to absorb rising medicine costs each month, while having to pay for house loans and their children's education, MPCAM said.