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Extension of Medifund for HIV treatment

Partner Institute: 
Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, National University of Singapore
Survey no: 
Lim Meng Kin
Health Policy Issues: 
Remuneration / Payment
Current Process Stages
Idea Pilot Policy Paper Legislation Implementation Evaluation Change
Implemented in this survey? no no no no yes no no


Medifund use was extended to cover HIV treatment from 1 February 2010 onwards. To support this extension, the Ministry of Health has injected an additional S$8.5 million into Medifund.

Purpose of health policy or idea

Medifund is a means-tested safety net within Singapore's comprehensive "3Ms" healthcare system, set up by the Singaporean government in 1993, to assist Singaporeans who are unable to afford "needed medical care". However, its coverage did not include HIV treatment. This will change from February 2010 onwards. Needy Singaporeans who qualify for assistance can now tap into Medifund in order to receive help for their HIV treatment payments.

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Characteristics of this policy

Degree of Innovation traditional traditional innovative
Degree of Controversy consensual controversial highly controversial
Structural or Systemic Impact marginal marginal fundamental
Public Visibility very low neutral very high
Transferability strongly system-dependent strongly system-dependent system-neutral

Political and economic background

Since Singapore's first HIV patient was diagnosed in 1985, the cumulative number of HIV-infected residents of Singapore has increased manifold, from 2 in 1985 to 4159 in 2009. Still, the HIV epidemic in Singapore is considered to be "low level", according to the World Health Organization's comparative country classification - meaning the prevalence of HIV does not exceed 5% in any defined subpopulation. 

The majority of HIV cases are managed at the state-run Communicable Disease Centre (CDC) where patients have access to both inpatient and outpatient subsidised care. But this subsidised care does not cover expensive anti-retroviral drugs, as the latter are not included in the Ministry of Health's Standard Drug List. Patients can only withdraw up to S$550 a month from their own Medisave accounts to pay for anti-retroviral drugs. For many patients, this is inadequate, given that a typical drug combination for HIV treatment ranges from S$500-S$600 per month (for two medications) to S$1200-S$1300 per month (for three medications). This does not even include laboratory fees for monitoring treatment and detecting side effects, or doctors' consultation fees.

A major reason for the high costs of HIV treatment in Singapore is that most of the commonly prescribed HIV drugs are protected by patent rights. Singapore, under constraint by WTO's TRIPS (Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property) rules, does not allow generic equivalents of patented drugs to be sold in the open market. However, the government does not prohibit patients to bring medicine from other countries to Singapore for their own use. Hence, many patients have resorted to purchasing these drugs from neighbouring countries like Thailand and Malaysia. By doing so, they can save up to 90% of their drug costs.

Purpose and process analysis

Current Process Stages

Idea Pilot Policy Paper Legislation Implementation Evaluation Change
Implemented in this survey? no no no no yes no no

Origins of health policy idea

For many years, the government's stance has been that expensive HIV treatment should not be funded by taxpayers. In the initial years, HIV still was poorly understood. Drugs were expensive and associated with many side effects, and their efficacy and cost-effectiveness were not clearly demonstrable. Therefore, such a position received the tacit approval, if not open support, of the majority of taxpayers at that time, given the social stigma associated with HIV infections. Minority voices of voluntary welfare organisations, patient support groups and doctors involved in the treatment of HIV patients mostly were unheeded - even when they later were able to point to advances in drug treatment and the mounting scientific evidence (both worldwide and in Singapore) which showed that treating HIV in early stages was cost-effective and warranted. 

In announcing the policy change, the Ministry of Health acknowledged that its decision was partly in response to feedback that it had received from voluntary welfare organisations and doctors treating HIV patients. Thus, one can reasonably assume that a tipping point had been reached where the government felt it was no longer able to defend its previous position of not extending help to those Singaporeans who needed HIV treatment, but could not afford it. After all, when Medifund was first introduced in 1993, the government had publicly pledged that no Singaporean would be denied "needed healthcare" due to inability to pay. One can therefore safely conclude that HIV treatment is finally deemed to be "needed healthcare" in Singapore.

Initiators of idea/main actors

  • Government
  • Providers
  • Patients, Consumers

Approach of idea

The approach of the idea is described as:

Stakeholder positions

Most doctors and patients alike welcomed the move.

In a statement, Action for AIDS's president said the move was "a long time coming". However, while acknowledging that Medifund will benefit individuals in the lowest income group the unemployed, he continued to express concern that middle-class Singaporeans infected with HIV may not be eligible.

Actors and positions

Description of actors and their positions
Ministry of Healthvery supportivevery supportive strongly opposed
Hospitalsvery supportivevery supportive strongly opposed
Doctorsvery supportivevery supportive strongly opposed
Patients, Consumers
Patientsvery supportivevery supportive strongly opposed

Actors and influence

Description of actors and their influence

Ministry of Healthvery strongvery strong none
Hospitalsvery strongweak none
Doctorsvery strongweak none
Patients, Consumers
Patientsvery strongweak none
Hospitals, Doctors, PatientsMinistry of Health

Positions and Influences at a glance

Graphical actors vs. influence map representing the above actors vs. influences table.

Expected outcome

The Ministry of Health (MOH) has in fact reaffirmed its existing policy of not including expensive anti-retroviral drugs in the Ministry of Health's Standard Drug List. Hence those who do not qualify for means-tested help from Medifund will not benefit from the policy. They will have to continue resorting to other means for paying their HIV treatment.


Impact of this policy

Quality of Health Care Services marginal marginal fundamental
Level of Equity system less equitable system less equitable system more equitable
Cost Efficiency very low very low very high

More than 370.000 people received help from Medifund in the fiscal year of 2008. As Singapore's population is ageing, the importance of Medifund in Singapore's healthcare system is likely to grow.



Sources of Information

  • Ministry of Health Press Release. Medifund for HIV patients 15 Jan 2010.

Author/s and/or contributors to this survey

Lim Meng Kin

National University of Singapore

Suggested citation for this online article

Lim Meng Kin. "Extension of Medifund for HIV treatment". Health Policy Monitor, 01/10/2010. Available at