Civil servants deny agreement reached to end free healthcare

Finance minister: Healthcare costs ‘overwhelming the budget’

The Civil Service Association has strongly denied that any agreement has been reached to end the policy of free healthcare for government workers.

Finance Minister Marco Archer said Thursday that it had been “pretty much accepted” that civil servants would pay part of their own healthcare premiums from 2018.

The association said no such deal has been agreed.

In an announcement circulated to all government workers Tuesday, James Watler, president of the association, said the association was “as surprised as anyone else” at Mr. Archer’s comments.

He wrote, “We don’t know who this has been pretty much accepted by, but no, the Cayman Islands Civil Service Association has not been asked, formally or informally, to accept anything of the sort.”

Characterizing the change as an “attempt to void contractually agreed obligations” with civil servants, Mr. Watler said previous discussions on the issue were unproductive and had ended without any agreement. He called for all parties to come back to the negotiating table and agree to a “fair compromise.”

“It is unfortunate that that fairness was not extended to civil servants before claims were made publicly about what has or had not been ‘pretty much accepted’ [on their behalf] by unknown parties,” Mr. Watler added.

Mr. Archer told the Cayman Compass Tuesday that his comments in the Legislative Assembly last week simply echoed remarks made in his 2015/16 budget speech.

He said it was not financially sustainable for government, which currently allocates 20 percent of the national budget to healthcare costs, to continue to fund free healthcare for all its staff.

“We have to realize that the country cannot afford to bear the full cost of healthcare premiums for all civil servants. It is overwhelming the budget,” he said.

He said both he and the deputy governor spoke about the issue at last year’s budget session, so the comments made Thursday should have come as no surprise to anyone.

“I have said previously that this will be implemented in 2018. The details of how it is done have to be sorted out, but when it happens has been decided.”

The Portfolio of Civil Service is responsible for working out the details. Mr. Archer said discussions would need to take place over the level of contribution required, which pay categories of workers would be included, and how the changes would be phased in. He said delayed cost-of-living increases could be implemented simultaneously to make the changes “pay neutral.”

Pensioners and those classed as indigent, as well as seafarers and veterans, would continue to receive free healthcare under the new policy. Even after the changes, he said, government workers would continue to enjoy far more generous healthcare packages than were available for the private sector.

Deputy Governor Franz Manderson told the Compass Tuesday that the civil service is in the process of reviewing its terms and conditions of service, with a view toward reducing costs, including cost sharing for healthcare.

“We are committed to the time line of 2018 as originally announced by Minister Archer. There is a process to be followed in order to achieve this result, which includes detailed analysis and consultation with our staff. I wish to assure civil servants that no decisions have been made on how we will deliver cost sharing on healthcare as this process is ongoing.”

In his remarks in the House on Thursday, Mr. Archer said the new arrangement would mean the civil service, which is now restricted to Health Services Authority medical services, would have more choice.

Mr. Watler, in his statement Tuesday, welcomed this, but insisted there are still a number of other sticking points, including the likely reduction in use of HSA services, which had “derailed previous discussions” and remained unresolved.

He also highlighted concerns over the “rising cost of health insurance” generally, which he said many civil servants are not in a financial position to bear.

“We were saddened to note the conflation of health insurance costs for civil servants, pensioners and indigents continues,” he said. “This leads to attempts to tax civil servants to pay not just for coverage that they were promised and contracted to receive, but social coverage as well.”

Despite those concerns, he said the association is willing to work on a compromise and wrote to Deputy Governor Manderson offering to host a roundtable discussion for “all relevant parties.”

“As we said at the end of the last, unproductive discussions we had, ‘if everyone is not involved in the discussions, they will continue to go nowhere,’” he said.

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