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Putting teeth in law on health insurance

Employers must provide health insurance for their workers, and yet thousands of cases show that this does not always happen. It's time for vigorous enforcement of the law.

A former teacher at a high school in Abu Dhabi, interviewed recently by The National, knew he would need the health insurance his employer denied him for two years by his employer. And in the summer of last year, he was at home when he started coughing blood. He did not have the money to pay for the treatment, so he broke the law: he used his friend's medical card.

He was caught. But it were not for a gracious doctor, he would have been denied treatment - or worse.

He is only one of thousands of employees who have been deprived of medical insurance although mandatory cover is prescribed by law. The case also shows how the lack of insurance can lead to worse situations. While we cannot condone the impersonation, we sympathise with the teacher's dilemma because he was uninsured through no fault of his own.

Although insurance cards must be issued before employers can obtain residence visas for staff, many companies circumvent the law in several ways. In the teacher's case, he was given an insurance card that was only valid for one month. In other cases, employers issue cards but never distribute them to staff, rendering them useless.

Authorities do act when they are notified of violations, but now they are promising tougher measures. As The National reported yesterday, the Health Authority - Abu Dhabi said the insurance law introduced in 2005 has been fully implemented and violators will face fines - a minimum Dh300 per worker, per month. If that fine does not dissuade lawbreakers, then it should be increased. Quite simply, it should be more expensive to skimp on health cover than to provide it.

The law, which applies to construction workers, requires companies to provide insurance to employees and their families. But it has taken six years to come into force; thousands of patients have either paid fees themselves or gone without treatment. Since May 2010, 42,153 cases alleging denial of insurance cover have been lodged.

It is important that employees can file these cases without fear of retribution or of losing their jobs. As in other cases, well-intentioned laws are on the books to safeguard the welfare of employees and residents, but enforcement has sometimes been lacking.

It will not be difficult to ensure every worker has health cover if companies are held to account.

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