Employers shirking insurance

At least three cases a day of failure to pay health insurance are being reported to the Health Insurance Commission.

In the one-year period between 1 July 2008 to 30 June 2009, 1,181 complaints or queries about non-payment of mandatory employee health insurance were made to the commission.

Of those cases, 87 per cent were resolved, Superintendent of Health Insurance Mervyn Conolly said.

He acknowledged that in the current economic climate that some employers may find it difficult to meet insurance payments, and advised anyone having trouble to contact the commission so a payment plan could be worked out.

‘Not providing and maintaining health insurance is not an option,’ he warned.

Mandatory health insurance was introduced in the Health Insurance Law in 1997. Since then, just six cases have gone before the courts with the first case being heard in 2007. Another 12 cases are pending, according to Mr. Conolly.

In the latest case, heard last week, Burnell and Amy Hurlston, trading as Hurlston Janitorial Services, were fined for failing to provide a member of staff with health insurance.

Magistrate Grace Donalds fined the defendants $300 each for failing to effect and continue a standard health insurance contract.

Charges of unlawful deduction from the employee’s salary remain on file but no fines were imposed.

According to the Health Insurance Commission, for more than eight months, the employee’s health insurance was not covered.

Money was deducted from the employee’s salary for two months, in July and August 2007, on the pretext that it would be paid toward health insurance coverage. The complainant was subsequently reimbursed.

The maximum penalty for failing to pay insurance for an employee is $10,000, under the Health Insurance Law.

Asked if he was satisfied with the $300 fine imposed by the judge on the Hurlstons, Mr. Conolly said he did not want to comment specifically on the case, but he added: ‘When you look at the level of fines and penalties, I am really not impressed in regard to those really and truly being a deterrent.’

He said the commission was considering making a recommendation to change the legislation governing health insurance so that penalties could be increase.

The largest combined fine imposed on a company for non-payment of health insurance and illegal deductions from an employee’s salary was $12,500.

Mr. Conolly said his department had seen a drop in the number of complaints from employees in recent years.

‘There has been much greater compliance over the past three years,’ he said. ‘We have seen not only the number of insured persons increasing, but also the number of employers contacting us saying ‘what is it you require of us?’.’

He added: ‘We’re encouraged. We believe the message is getting out there.’

He said most complaints were about small companies rather than large corporations or multi-nationals.

Despite courts at time handing down small fines to offenders, Mr. Conolly said he hoped the experience of appearing in court and of having details of the case made public would act as a deterrent.

Cases involving employers illegally deducting money from employees’ wages were being given priority by the Health Insurance Commission, he said.

‘We have no sympathy with an employer who does that,’ he said. ‘It’s the equivalent to stealing.’

Mr. Conolly added that employees who were afraid to complain about their existing employer could file a complaint retroactively, after they had left the company.