UPDATE: The Nation reported on Oct. 18 that Thailand plans to move ahead with the fee for tourists entering the country – possibly Bt500 (US16) for a three- to 30-day stay and Bt30 for less than three days.
Anyone visiting the Land of Smiles may be required to obtain travel insurance if some officials in the country have their way. Sparked in part by the burden of expense borne by public hospitals that treat uninsured foreigners, the Tourism and Sports Industry intends to implement the new measure, though it is unclear exactly who will be required to buy the insurance.
The Nation reported that tourists who apply for visas outside the country may be required to purchase a 500 baht (US$16) insurance package at that time, though it was unclear whether those who do not need a visa before entering the country would also have to buy the package.
The measure is meant to ease the pressure on public hospitals, where foreigners can receive medical treatment whether they have insurance or not. However, in some cases those bills never get paid, leaving the hospital more strapped for money and resources.
Requiring foreigners to purchase a 500 baht insurance package is not much of a financial burden, at least for those coming from Western countries. However, depending on what that package would cover, they might be better off purchasing a plan in their native countries that might offer more security and assistance in the event of illness or accident.
Costs at Thai hospitals are significantly less than at Western hospitals. For example, a night at a decent Chiang Mai Hospital while being treated for a stomach infection in a private room, costs about $400 USD. It’s nothing to sneeze at, but for an outright medical cost, without insurance, it’s significantly more affordable than in other parts of the world.
If these bills frequently go unpaid, however, it’s easy to see how quality care at hospitals could deteriorate without the resources to maintain a competent staff, supply of medicines and medical equipment.
The Thai Health Ministry recommended that foreigners be required to pay for insurance at immigration checkpoints, or that the fee be added to the cost of an air ticket.
A recent article indicated that Australians in Phuket, the popular resort area that draws a number of ex-pats and retirees, have taken advantage of the health care at public hospitals, either without insurance or without the ability to pay the entire amount for their treatment. In that piece, Dr. Nara Kingkaew, deputy director of Vachira Public Hospital in Phuket, said that hospital alone had 4 million baht (nearly US$128,000) additional costs per year, directly linked to foreigners without insurance or who could not pay hospital bills. Many of those patients were Australian males needing treatment for motorbike-related accidents.
While it’s clear something should be done to mitigate the expenses for hospitals, there are some who believe the plan will backfire and result in a decrease in tourism if travel insurance becomes mandatory.
The Nation quotes Yuthachai Soonthronrattnavate, president of the Association of Domestic Travel, as criticizing the plan. In addition to being difficult to enforce, he said it sends a negative message to the rest of the world, particularly would-be travelers, about the country’s high accident rate.
Indeed, Thailand has a notoriously bad record on traffic deaths. The Guardian reported last year that it had the highest motorbike accident rate in the world. In many major tourist areas, it’s quite common to see farangs, or foreigners, with various scrapes, bruises and bandages attesting to their own road accidents. This in part has to do with inexperienced drivers renting bikes and becoming overconfident on long road trips into the mountains or reckless when driving on major roads. Foreigners and locals alike view helmets as being optional.
(READ MORE: Thailand’s road carnage continues)
Perhaps if there were higher standards for renting motorbikes – proof of insurance, driver’s license, etc. – hospitals would see fewer uninsured cases coming in. At present, it’s very easy to rent a bike with no prior experience or proof of health insurance. You show your passport and perhaps pay an insurance fee on the vehicle, but that’s it.
For someone who is determined to visit Thailand or move here, the bigger draws will surely outweigh a small travel insurance fee. While making it compulsory seems a clumsy solution to the problem, it could be useful to foreigners, as things do come up aside from motorbike accidents, it’s not uncommon to come down with nasty food poisoning, and in rarer cases illnesses such as dengue fever.
However, Yuttachai may be right that the compulsory insurance law could leave a bad taste in potential tourists’ mouths. People don’t like to be forced to do things, and the idea that so many foreigners need help that it’s causing a critical burden on hospitals could make them wary of visiting at all. Perhaps the real issue at hand is reducing the number of road accidents and fatalities – and not just those involving motorbikes. An alarming number of stories have come out recently about bus crashes involving both Thais and foreign visitors. Some serious measurements to reduce these accidents would certainly go a long way toward reducing the burden on hospitals.