By month-end, Jamaica’s over 1 million children will be exempt from health fee charges in public hospitals, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller stated Tuesday during her presentation to the 2007/2008 Budget Debate in the House of Representatives.
Using the move to herald Child Month, Mrs. Simpson Miller said the exemption will cost the Government $350 million and will take effect on May 28 in all public hospitals, except the University Hospital of the West Indies. The UHWI has been exempted because it is a regional hospital, Health Minister Horace Dalley explained in an interview following the Prime Minister’s presentation.
In addition to the new benefits for children, Mrs. Simpson Miller said the Government would build a new hospital for minors and adolescents in the western region of the island. The hospital is to cost some US$10 million (J$680 million).
“I want to see a modern, well-equipped hospital that meets the needs of children and adolescents who depend on the public-health system,” Mrs. Simpson Miller said.
She also announced a range of health benefits for the poor, including exemption for all under the PATH programme.
“We must take care of our most vulnerable family members. We have to help the children, the weak, the elderly and the disabled. This is an obligation that we have from God,” the Prime Minister declared.
The health-care system is also to benefit from $863 million worth of new equipment, including 53 radiology machines at a cost of $850 million. Forty new ambulances have also been assigned to public hospitals, one of which will be equipped for paediatrics.
In the parliamentary opposition’s first response, however, Dr. Kenneth Baugh, the Jamaica Labour Party’s (JLP) spokesman on health, was far from impressed.
He described the Prime Minister’s announcement as a “knee jerk” and “not [a] well thought out” response to the JLP’s own policy initiative.
He pointed out that Opposition Leader Bruce Golding, in his own contribution to the budget debate, had announced his party’s intention to remove all hospital charges for all age groups.
Furthermore, he said, there was no provision in the 2007/2008 budget for the withdrawal of fees as announced by the Prime Minister. The public hospitals were projecting increased collections this financial year to meet their budgetary requirements, he said.
“As it stands now, if they do not collect fees, they cannot pay for the cost of running hospitals; there is no provision in the budget to make up that gap”, he warned.
On the other hand, he said, the JLP had made provisions in its own budget projections for a comprehensive removal of hospital fees, should it form the next government.