NHI BILL CONFIRMS LIMITS TO ‘UNIVERSAL’ QUALITY CARE

This article is is based on two that appeared in the 12 and 15 August editions of Legalbrief Today, under Policy Watch

Once in force, the National Health Insurance Bill tabled last week in Parliament is expected to facilitate universal access to ‘needed health care that is of sufficient quality to be effective’ – and ‘financial protection’ from its costs. This is according to a memorandum on the Bill’s objects. However, in expanding on this, clauses 4, 5 and 7 of the Bill (respectively dealing with population coverage, user registration and health care services coverage) point to distinct limitations. Together, sub-clauses 4(4), 5(1) and 7(2)(e) make it very clear that only public and private health care facilities accredited over time by the fund will be available to registered fund users. Registration will not be compulsory. In addition, sub-clause 7(2)(e) requires the fund to ‘enter into contracts with accredited health care service providers and health establishments at primary health care and hospital level based on the health needs of users and in accordance with referral pathways’. This tends to suggest that private health care practitioners and facilities will be able to choose whether to contract in or out of the NHI system – at least at this stage of the process.

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Regarding the role of medical schemes, clause 33 implies that – in the context of sub-clauses 4(4), 5(1) and 7(2)(e) – ‘once NHI has been fully implemented’ registered fund users who are also members of medical schemes will only be eligible for ‘complementary cover’ for ‘services not reimbursable by the fund’. Furthermore, sub-clause 39(1) clearly states that health care service providers and health establishments accredited by the fund will be required to deliver ‘services at the appropriate level of care to users who are in need and entitled to health care service benefits that have been purchased by the fund on their behalf’. This is noting that, according to sub-clause 57(1)(b), NHI ‘must be gradually phased in using a progressive and programmatic approach based on financial resource availability’.

According to the memorandum on the Bill’s objects, ‘in a favourable economic environment’, ‘new taxation options’ for the fund will be considered. In this regard, the Bill’s clause 49(2) refers to the ‘reallocation of funding for medical scheme tax credits’, ‘employer and employee’ payroll tax and a ‘surcharge on personal income tax’. An assumption on the part of some commentators that all listed options will automatically be factored into the mix could well be misplaced. Writing for Moneyweb, Bowmans tax partner Aneria Bouwer appears to agree. Like the 2015 NHI White Paper, the Bill tends to suggest that specific elements of the combined revenue source are still up for discussion. Meanwhile, the fund will depend on ‘some’ conditional grants being shifted from the Department of Health – as well as ‘some or all’ monies for ‘personal health care services’ traditionally factored into the provincial equitable share formula (clause 49). In this regard, reference is made to moving the national tertiary services grant and the HIV/AIDS and TB grant from the Department of Health into the fund. In appropriating money from the fiscus, Parliament will be guided by the principle of ‘social solidarity’ – which is defined as ‘financial risk pooling to enable cross-subsidisation between … young and … old, rich and … poor, … healthy and sick’.

National Assembly Health Committee chair Sibongiseni Dhlomo has confirmed that work on the Bill will begin with a briefing on its constitutionality from the Office of the State Law Adviser. This is expected to allay concerns expressed by DA leader Mmusi Maimane. The parliamentary process will include public hearings to be conducted separately by the National Assembly, the NCOP and the provincial legislatures.