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Weed, sugar taxes may fund national health insurance

Published:Wednesday | May 8, 2019 | 12:00 AMAvia Collinder/Gleaner Writer

The Government yesterday tabled a Green Paper proposing a compulsory national health insurance plan that would offer equal benefits for contributors regardless of income.

Financing for the initiative would be sourced from a combination of employee contributions or premiums and industry taxes.

About 500,000 people of the 2.7 million ­people living in Jamaica have health insurance, leaving behind more than 80 per cent of the population to fund healthcare out of pocket, engage in months-long waits for diagnostic tests or surgical operations, or wait hours to receive general observation.

Among the revenue sources the Ministry of Health has proposed are taxes on sugar and cannabis, raising billions to supplement healthcare costs.

Minister of Health Christopher Tufton told The Gleaner on Tuesday that rates to be charged and estimates of revenue to be raised were still being reviewed by Cabinet.

Tufton asserted that private insurance providers would act as a top-up in the ­system as the services to be underwritten by the national health insurance plan would be basic, although spanning preventive care, ­diagnostic ­services, and treatment.

The Green Paper also proposed that the implementation of the National Identification System (NIDS) would aid in implementation. NIDS was shot down by the Constitutional Court last month, with its underpinning legislation, the National Identification Registration Act, ruled null and void and without effect. The Government is currently reviewing the ruling.

President and Chief Executive Officer of Sagicor Group Jamaica Limited Christopher Zacca, when asked on Tuesday what might be the impact on the private insurance sector, said, “We are in the process of analysing it. We are not in a position to comment yet.”

Tufton may be hoping to use traction from legislation and a vigorous public-education campaign to get public buy-in for a tax on sugar, which has been identified as a key contributor to the prevalence of non-communicable diseases. The proposal also floats a vehicle levy, citing the high public cost borne by the State in treating with vehicular accidents and ­respiratory diseases.

An excise tax focusing on cancer caused by tobacco and alcohol and a gaming and lottery levy supporting programmes for mental illness and substance abuse are also on the cards.

With the decriminalisation of marijuana in Jamaica, the Government is also exploring the prospect of piggy-backing on an expected boom in the medical marijuana industry with a levy comprising a sales tax on legal marijuana sales.

The document cited one scenario for ­contribution levels in 2019. In this example, flat-rate contributions would be directed from an estimated 192,300 informal-sector adults (including those over the age of 65). In addition, from an estimated 212,600 workers from the formal sector, a flat rate would be paid.

Both formal and informal contributors would make an additional contribution monthly for dependents.