Thousands of Caymanians could be going without health insurance amid increasing unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and border closure.
Scores of taxi, water-sports and tour operators told the Compass they had given up their health insurance policies because they simply could not afford to pay the premiums.
Though they are receiving a $1,000 stipend to help cover their living costs, many said health insurance was a luxury compared to more pressing necessities, like food and electricity.
Troy Leacock, a spokesman for the water-sports operators, said support from the Needs Assessment Unit, which does cover insurance on application for some, had been inconsistent.
Several operators told the Compass they had unsuccessfully applied to the NAU for support. Others said they had paid out of pocket to get the required doctor’s note for the application, but received no response.
A government Health Insurance Premium Assistance Programme was introduced in May, and some were able to get three months of support to meet their payments at that time.
Leacock said he had appealed to government to continue the programme but was waiting for a response.
“Many people in our industry don’t have health insurance,” he said. “It is a struggle; it should be a legal and moral requirement.”
Tara Nielsen, of non-profit Cayman Acts of Random Kindness, said the charity was receiving hundreds of requests for support with health insurance.
“The crisis has gone from hunger and utilities to housing, and now health,” she said. “The unemployed are being stripped of all life’s basic needs that employment provides.”
Once people are made redundant, she said, they become responsible for 100% of their health insurance costs.
“If people can’t buy food or maintain housing, payments for health insurance is the first expenditure that has to be sacrificed,” she said.
Annikki Brown, country manager for Generali and the chair of the Health Insurance Standing Committee, said COVID had significantly impacted the industry.
“The most obvious impact is the complete shutdown of one of our economic pillars has led to a shrinking of the insured population,” she said.
She added that companies that were still in business were also struggling to keep up with their health insurance payments.
Asked about financial support to companies to provide coverage at a press conference Thursday, Health Minister Dwayne Seymour said government was in discussions about continuing that scheme, which ended in June. He claimed there were only “one or two companies” that had emailed about that situation despite outreach from his ministry.
He added that there were some ‘financial challenges’ in his ministry that had now been rectified and insisted the issue was not “off the radar” and more news would be forthcoming in the next few weeks..
MP Chris Saunders, the opposition’s spokesman on health, said the COVID crisis had highlighted the need for a system of universal healthcare.
He said the pandemic had brought an existing problem into the open and magnified it to the extent that something would have to be done.
“Unfortunately, this is what happens when access to healthcare is linked to your employment,” he said. “It comes back to the question, do we believe healthcare is a right or a privilege?
“I am saying that it is a fundamental right.”
He pointed out that government ultimately footed the bill for the uninsured – forking out up to $60 million annually in grants or in loans that had no hope of being repaid, to cover the expense of tertiary-level care overseas and on island for those who became seriously ill and could not afford care. He believes providing blanket insurance will allow people to access preventative healthcare, lessening overall costs.
He said healthcare reform, with the aim of achieving universal coverage for all in Cayman regardless of employment, would be a key plank of the election platform for his group.