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Dubai weighs its healthcare options

Officials feared impact of fee-based scheme in financial downturn would harm businesses.

Health officials in Dubai are weighing two possible options for an employee healthcare scheme, and hope that a phased introduction could begin next year. Dr Haidar al Yousuf, the head of health funding at Dubai Health Authority (DHA), said their original plan had been delayed because the extra cost to employers would have put jobs at risk during the financial crisis.

He said the choice was now between compulsory health insurance funded by employers and the scheme originally envisaged, in which employers would pay a fixed fee to the Government for each employee. This money would then be distributed to primary healthcare centres. The introduction had been planned for January 2009, but had been affected by the impact of the financial downturn. "It was good, but the economy changed completely," said Dr al Yousuf at the Gulf Health Insurance Forum.

"I'm aware there are frustrations. Things have not moved as quickly as many of us had hoped. But we didn't want to put businesses out of business. "If a company has 20,000 employees and they have to pay Dh600 [US$160] for each, for example, how will this affect the cost of building? If I do this tomorrow, am I going to put five, 10 or 20 contracting companies out of business?" The health authority initially decided against mandatory health insurance, similar to the scheme that has been in place in Abu Dhabi since 2006. It requires employers and sponsors to give health cover to every resident.

Under Dubai's original plan, employers would have been required to pay the Government a levy - expected to have been between Dh500 and Dh800 - for each employee. Every resident would have to register with an outpatient clinic, which would be given a set amount to provide them with free "basic health services". "Insurance is, in some ways, the easier to implement," said Dr al Yousuf. "But the long-term good effects of the funding option are also important. Primary health care is very important. At the moment it is a 50-50 situation."

Both plans would be put before the Executive Council by the end of the year, and a phased introduction could begin next year, he said. It would start with the sectors in which workers are least able to afford health care, said Dr al Yousuf. In May last year, the authority said it was delaying the scheme until this year, citing the "current environment". Agreeing that access to healthcare should be a basic right, Dr al Yousuf said: "We need to make sure we do it responsibly and don't shoot ourselves in the foot."

Dr al Yousuf urged employers not to set themselves against whatever health care requirements ended up being put in place. "I would encourage them to be more responsible and provide their people with [healthcare] solutions," he said. "Do not be obstructive when something is introduced." @Email:munderwood@thenational.ae

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