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De Couto attacks ‘misleading’ health insurance rate claim

On the record: Douglas De Couto, the Shadow Minister of Finance (File photograph)

The One Bermuda Alliance has dismissed a claim that it does not support a government decision to freeze health insurance rates.

The dispute echoed a war of words over the Government Loans Amendment Act, passed in March.

The legislation allows the Government’s Sinking Fund to provide monies to other public funds if, in the opinion of the finance minister, they would not be required to fund budget deficits.

Under the law, a surplus in the fund, which took on money borrowed for emergency support during the Covid-19 pandemic, left $30 million to be transferred to the Mutual Reinsurance Fund for healthcare and $10 million to pay for more affordable homes.

The Opposition has subsequently insisted its criticism of the Bill did not equate to opposing either a health rate freeze or support for affordable housing.

Christopher Famous, a government MP and columnist, in a March 22 article in The Royal Gazette, accused the OBA of trying to block “further needed investment in our people” by voting against the Bill.

Jarion Richardson, the Leader of the Opposition, responded that the Opposition was against using funds earmarked to cover government spending.

Mr Richardson also highlighted that the legislation did not specify what the money would be spent on, and that the use of the funds did not have to be reported to Parliament.

The dispute resurfaced in comments last week from the Ministry of Health, when it was maintained that a freeze in the Standard Premium Rate for the third consecutive year was not backed by the Opposition.

The ministry said then: “This move reflects our commitment to easing the financial burden on our community, which is not reflected by private insurers — and why we are advancing universal healthcare.

“Our decision to freeze rates was not supported by the Opposition.”

Douglas De Couto, the Shadow Minister of Finance, hit back on Monday, when he described the allegation as “misleading and factually incorrect”.

He said: “In reality, when debating the Government Loans Amendment Act, the One Bermuda Alliance clearly stated, not once, not twice, but three times that we do indeed support freezing health costs for the public.

“Indeed, we even pledged to support the Government if it paid for that cost freeze through the normal budgeting process, with parliamentary scrutiny.

“However, we could not agree to legislation that would allow the Government to raid borrowed money from the fund and spend it without the accountability of the budgeting process and parliamentary approval.

“It’s also important to remember that the Government Loans Amendment Act made no mention of healthcare or housing. All we have is promises from the Government.

“Finally, the Government has no actual plans to reduce the health insurance costs — once the Sinking Fund money is spent, Bermudians’ bills will have to catch up to this year’s costs, and likely rise again.”

Dr De Couto pointed to a Hansard transcript of a Senate session in March in which the Government Loans Amendment Act was debated.

The legislation passed narrowly after independent senators joined the Opposition against it.

The Hansard record quoted Dr De Couto as saying: “Should the Government wish to provide a grant through the Consolidated Fund to the Mutual Reinsurance Fund of $30 million, we will support that. But we certainly support the policy goals of the Government here.

“And I think you have seen many, many occasions in the Senate where we have agreed with the Government on legislation that is done in the usual manner, I would say. But we cannot support this Bill. We do not think it is the careful thing to do, to support this Bill.”

He added: “If I look at this amendment, it is not actually required to achieve the policy goals that the Government has set out, and which I stated, the OBA pledges to support should they come through the existing processes.

“If they had been included in the Budget, we would have supported. If they would have come in a supplemental, we would support. If they would have come in a narrowly tailored piece of legislation that included in the legislation those specific policy goals, so we could be confident that they would be achieved with those funds, we would support.”

Dr De Couto said on Monday: “Given that this government can’t even be honest about easily verifiable factual statements such as what the OBA has said on the record, and has been busy trying to hide the existence of a report on last year’s cyberattack from the public, it is no surprise that the OBA does not trust the Government to spend the people’s money without the right processes for transparency and accountability.

“The people don’t trust the Government’s promises, and neither do we.”

A government spokeswoman insisted in reply that the Opposition’s claim that it supported the freeze on health insurance rates was “contradicted by their actions in the House of Assembly”.

She added: “They opposed the Government Loans Amendment Act, which was essential for transferring funds to enable the rate freeze.

“The Opposition was clear during the debates in the House, where members of the One Bermuda Alliance voiced their dissent against the necessary legislative changes that allowed us to protect Bermudians from increased health insurance premiums.”

She cited the Opposition’s proposal of a minimal VAT tax on healthcare services in the February 2023 Reply to the Budget, and its suggestion one year later to switch the block grant for King Edward VII Memorial Hospital for a fee-for-service model, as showing the party “consistently proposed policies that would increase healthcare costs for Bermudians”.

She said the fee-for-service model would have “significantly driven up healthcare costs — a fact that health economists and experts have repeatedly warned against”.

The spokeswoman said the Opposition should “join the Government in addressing the real issues”, pointing to the closure threat faced by the Kaleidoscope Arts Foundation, reported this month, over its rising private health insurance rates.

She added that Dr De Couto’s criticism pointed to a “lack of constructive solutions”.

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Published June 19, 2024 at 7:55 am (Updated June 19, 2024 at 7:45 am)

De Couto attacks ‘misleading’ health insurance rate claim

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