Despite rising COVID-19 cases in Thailand, the Public Health Ministry will soon stop providing free emergency treatment at private hospitals for patients who have caught the highly transmissible virus.
The Cabinet has asked the ministry to review its planned March 1 cutoff date, but signs suggest COVID-19 will be delisted as an emergency condition sooner rather than later.
The government has spent more than Bt100 billion on COVID-19 treatment since the disease reached Thailand in 2020.
Fully 88 percent of that sum has been spent on green-category patients or those with no or very mild symptoms.
Top government figures now believe it is high time for authorities to use the budget more efficiently by focusing on treating severe cases.
What does the plan mean for people?
Once the Public Health Ministry removes COVID-19 from the emergency treatment list, non-critical patients will no longer be able to get free treatment at private hospitals.
The ministry originally added COVID-19 to the National Health Security Office’s Universal Coverage for Emergency Patients (UCEP) scheme because the virus was a public health crisis.
However, after more than two years battling the disease and with Thailand’s vaccination rate now above 70 percent, health authorities believe it is time to begin treating the virus as endemic instead of a health emergency.
They argue that the COVID-19 death rate is relatively low, and people now know how to protect themselves.
Under UCEP, emergency patients can get free treatment for 72 hours at the nearest hospital – be it state-run or private.
COVID-19 patients are eligible for UCEP if they lose consciousness, have difficulty breathing, break out in a fever or become lethargic, suffer acute chest pains, develop seizures or weakness in one part of their body, or suffer any life-threatening respiratory, blood-circulation or brain conditions.
How will new cases get treated?
The Public Health Ministry has explained that while COVID-19 will be removed from UCEP, those who catch the virus can still get free treatment through any of the three major government healthcare schemes.
These schemes are medical benefits for civil servants and their family members, the social security scheme, and the gold-card scheme.
But even though many private hospitals are part of the social security scheme, this does not mean COVID-19 patients can seek treatment at any of these hospitals for free.
Instead, they will be required to seek treatment at the hospital they have registered under their scheme.
COVID-19 treatment at private hospitals will only be provided for free if the patient is in critical condition, which means they will be considered an emergency case.
Surge in outpatients
Though the Public Health Ministry has held off on removing COVID-19 from UCEP in line with the Cabinet’s request, it has indicated that it will do so soon.
From March 1, public hospitals will treat COVID-19 cases as outpatients if they have no or mild symptoms. These patients can opt to undergo self-observation at home in line with the Medical Services Department’s guidelines.
Dr. Kiattibhoom Vongrachit, the Public Health Ministry’s permanent secretary, explained that outpatients will be provided with medications like Favipiravir, Fah Talai Jone herbal pills, and paracetamol according to the severity of their symptoms, such as fever, cough or runny nose.
The government has been promoting home or community isolation for COVID-19 patients since last year in a move to ease the pressure on hospital beds.
Private insurance and COVID-19
With treatment guidelines for COVID-19 constantly changing, private insurance policyholders have been complaining that they are unable to seek treatment for the disease at private hospitals.
A recent discussion between insurance firms and the Office of Insurance Commission concluded that COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals/hospitels will be allowed to claim benefits under their existing policy.
In the event of home isolation, insurance claims for medical treatment or lost income will be awarded on a case-by-case basis for the time being until new, clearer guidelines are introduced.
By Thai PBS World’s General Desk