When essential public need becomes ‘charity’

opinion March 21, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

Government negligence leaves hospitals reliant on public donations to finance new facilities 

Our hats are off to the 20 Siriraj Hospital medical students and celebrities including Artiwala “Toon Bodyslam” Kongmalai, Ratchawin “Koy” Wongviriya and Thikamporn “Cheer” Ritta-apinan after last week’s impressive marathon run to raise money for construction of the hospital’s 84th Anniversary Navamindrabopitr Building.

The “1,500,000 Steps” campaign set out from Chiang Mai aiming to collect Bt99.99 million and instead far exceeded that goal, raising more than 

Bt125 million. Rocker Toon had accomplished a similar feat in December with a 400-kilometre run that took in 

Bt63 million for Bang Saphan District Hospital in Prachuap Khiri Khan.

Tempering any feelings of pride and elation over good citizens organising and supporting such activities, though, is the abject lack of assistance from the government. Thailand is blessed to have so many caring, civic-minded people ready to help others in need, but it’s cursed in having national governments that direct tax money towards causes of far less benefit to the populace. What does it say about our society when ordinary folks have to put such enormous effort into raising funds for social services while a substantial share of the government’s budget is earmarked for submarines? It’s understandable that communities must occasionally rally behind common needs and provide needed grassroots support. It is entirely another matter when it becomes their responsibility to build hospital facilities.

Rather than military hardware, the government should be giving top priority to community requirements, particularly hospital buildings, equipment and personnel. There are supposed to be clear spending plans and budgets for these essentials, financed by taxes. Charity events and public donations should account for no more than supplementary funding.

Mahidol University’s Faculty of Medicine, which operates Siriraj Hospital, must have been aware there was no point in submitting a budget proposal to the government, or at least that it could raise the money for the new facility more quickly by appealing to the public. It’s shameful that the government played no role at all in this project – and yet this was not the first time it’s happened. Thirty years ago another group of Siriraj medical students ran from Chiang Mai to Bangkok to collect donations for erecting the Sayamin Building. 

Mahidol and Siriraj do of course have the benefit of royal connections that draw more public support. The starting point for both of these runs was McCormick Hospital in Chiang Mai, where His Royal Highness Prince Mahidol, father of His Majesty the late King Bhumibol, worked after graduating from Harvard University in the US. Other Thai hospitals and affiliated universities, such as Chulalongkorn, can draw on historical significance as well when raising construction funds. 

Would that every hospital in the country had it so easy when faced with budget limitations. Even if a slice of the national or provincial government budget is forthcoming for the erection or expansion of buildings, they often must find their own funding sources for equipment, services and staff. Bang Phli Hospital in Samut Prakan provides an example. Upgraded from the status of community hospital when Suvarnabhumi  Airport opened nearby, in anticipation of greatly expanded need, it went from 60 beds to 200 – and yet still has just 80 professional nurses on staff.

We can only wonder why the Ministry of Public Health allows or ignores such shortfalls at Bang Phli and no doubt at hundreds of other smaller hospital across the country. If the answer is that the budget for taking care of citizens’ essential daily needs is too small, let’s compare it to that of the Defence Ministry, keeping in mind that this is peacetime and Thailand is under no threat from abroad whatsoever. 

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