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Medical benefit costs on uptrend in Asia with India leading rise, poll shows

The cost of employer-provided medical care in Asia Pacific is expected to continue rising in the near term, with India, Indonesia and Malaysia leading the trend, a survey by insurance brokerage Willis Towers Watson Plc showed.

The costs were driven by expensive advanced medical technology and overuse and over prescription of services, the survey showed.

The poll was carried out between October and November 2016, with responses from 231 leading medical insurers, including 50 from Asia Pacific.

India leads the charge with the gross cost of health care benefits estimated to rise 20% in 2017. It is followed by Malaysia with a rise of 15% and Indonesia with 11%.

The costs are not expected to go down in the near term, with half of all the insurers in the Asia Pacific forecasting "higher or significantly higher" medical expenses over the next three years.

"While progress is being made to stem costs, the vast majority of respondents continue to grapple with how to rein them in. It's not for a lack of effort or innovation that this continues to be a struggle," Cedric Luah, the head of Health & Benefits, Asia and Australasia at Willis Towers Watson, said in the report.

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Insurers reported cancer, cardiovascular disease, muscular skeletal conditions and respiratory conditions as the most prevalent conditions behind the cost hike.

While employers were implementing both traditional and novel ways to manage the rising costs, wellness programs were seen to be one of the more popular methods being adopted. Almost 57% of insurers offer lifestyle and health education programs, and these are expected to grow to nearly 79% in 2018.

"They [wellness programs] not only hold great promise for addressing non-communicable diseases, they can also address ones that arise from lifestyle choices impacting Asian employees such as smoking, poor eating habits and lack of regular exercise," Luah said.

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The findings also showed that Asia Pacific was behind the global numbers in offering treatment for mental health and stress as only 36% of insurers in the region offered the coverage versus 61% of global insurers. However, it is catching on with 7% of those polled saying they plan to provide stress-related programs within the next 12 months.