By NICO SCAVELLA
Tribune Staff Reporter
PRIME Minister Perry Christie yesterday stressed his resolve in implementing National Health Insurance, adding that the government would not do anything to upset the economy in deciding how to fund the programme in its later stages.
The government has said it would not roll out a new tax for the first phase of the scheme, which will come on stream in January 2016.
The prime minister spoke to reporters during an NHI task force meeting at the Office of the Prime Minister yesterday, to which members of the media were invited.
“Anything we do will be matched to what the economy can absorb at a particular time,” said Mr Christie, who is chairman of the National Public/Private Sector Task Force responsible for the phased-in implementation of NHI.
“So even if rates come in the next budget year, those rates will in fact conform to what we would regard as the obligations of the government to ensure the economy is not unduly disturbed by any rate or tax that we impose.”
“ . . .We’re going to do it the sensible way. I think the government made a commitment to taking steps that are in the best interest in the economy of the country and doing nothing to disrupt the economy.”
He also said: “We do not want to start with people misunderstanding what we are doing and having a raging debate over whether or not we should introduce a programme that is more fundamental to the existence of our civilization in this country than any programme we have ever done.”
Meanwhile a leading surgeon yesterday blasted the government for its uncertainty on how it will fund NHI, adding that he would not be surprised “if they come to the people of the Bahamas with a new tax to fund this initiative.”
Dr Duane Sands, the former Free National Movement senator, said recent comments by Labour Minister Shane Gibson that highlight the government’s concern over its fiscal capability to implement NHI show that the Christie administration is “neither willing, able nor prepared to introduce appropriate, sustainable healthcare reform in the Bahamas.”
On Tuesday, Mr Gibson acknowledged that the government is concerned about how it will fund NHI. Mr Gibson said the government’s concerns are further intensified by the devastation caused by Hurricane Joaquin and how much it would cost to fund restoration efforts throughout the affected islands.
As a result, Mr Gibson suggested that a practical solution would be to introduce a “minimal” benefits package, and then “increase the benefits package over time.”
When contacted yesterday, however, Dr Sands suggested that Mr Gibson’s statements were only confirmation that the Christie administration is “incapable of conceiving, planning, and executing anything.
“I suspect that we’re going to see a most peculiar administrative approach to this, against the backdrop of a national disaster that’s Hurricane Joaquin, against an historic increase in the national debt, they are going to be so hell bent on making this happen, don’t be surprised if they come to the people of the Bahamas with a new tax to fund this initiative,” he added.
“Right now the imperative is for them to put something on the table, whether it makes sense, whether it’s fiscally prudent, whether it’s going to be a recessive blow to the economy, whether it’s going to negatively impact ordinary Bahamians who are struggling right now to make ends meet, even against the backdrop of the unexpected charges to the government to assist with the cleanup and rebuild after Joaquin, they keep rolling with what is an entitlement programme.”
According to Sanigest Internacional, the government’s Costa Rican consultants on NHI, the scheme could cost up to $633m annually if implemented as a comprehensive package. On the low end, NHI could cost around $362m.
The government has allocated $60m for the first phase of NHI.
“We’ve been having this discussion now for many, many months and I have continued to suggest that this is primarily a political tool,” Dr Sands said. “The honourable minister with responsibility for national insurance and labour is kind of paving the way for the government to change its approach to NHI. And I think he is kind of softening the crowd up a little bit for the prime minister to make some major announcement about changes in NHI.
“This has been a moving target from the beginning. From the lead up to elections to the first 100 days to the comments made by the minister of health to the Sanigest report, most recently to the prime minister’s peculiar comments about wanting to avoid a confusing debate. So the goal post is moving one more time.
“I put it to you that this government is neither willing, able or prepared to introduce substantive appropriate, sustainable healthcare reform in the Bahamas. That this is totally about political posturing.”
NHI will be phased in over a five-year period, the government has said.
In September, Health Minister Dr Perry Gomez said while the government was “a little behind” on meeting the benchmarks set by itself and its international consultants, the Christie administration is on schedule to begin registering eligible people for universal health coverage come January 1.