The progress of modern medicine is among the great success stories of human history. But our longer, healthier lives do not come cheap: in all but the poorest countries, health care is eating up a bigger and bigger proportion of national wealth.
Indeed, diagnostic testing, hospital stays, treatment and even medication can be beyond the reach of many; a catastrophic illness could ruin the finances of almost any family. That's why medical insurance is now seen, in many countries, as essential.
In the UAE, Abu Dhabi has required employers to provide health cover for all expatriate workers and their dependents since 2005; there is a separate comprehensive insurance programme for Emiratis.
Now, as reported by Al Ittihad,the sister paper of The National, a federal law has been drafted to assure comparable coverage for everyone living across the country, as well as for Emiratis abroad. Employers will be required to provide insurance, and not charge workers for it.
That makes sense; plainly labourers cannot be expected to pay market rates for insurance. A natural corollary of national policies that welcome low-wage labour is that money must be found to provide those workers with a modicum of medical insurance.
That is one reason the idea of a UAE-wide insurance requirement has been around since at least 2004; we know that the federal cabinet considered a draft law on the subject in that year and again in 2007. The new version appears to put more flesh on the bones of the proposal.
There will of course be many details to be hammered out before this plan becomes reality. Dubai has for some time been preparing its own mandatory health-insurance system, and in March officials said a formal announcement would be forthcoming soon. How that planning will be integrated into the new federal authority remains to be seen.
Also, details of coverage and rates will obviously have to be worked out. The plan is being brought forward at a time when insurance companies have been under pressure as claims increase faster than funding from premiums and other sources; an expanded policy base should help financially but there will have to be safeguards against abuses.
Once all this is worked out, however, the new law will be a welcome step forward for the country. Health insurance is not a luxury, it is more nearly a basic need of modern life.