With reporting from Heba Fahmy
Qatar’s plans to roll out a country-wide healthcare scheme have been put on hold indefinitely after a call from the Cabinet to freeze National Health Insurance Co. (Seha) services by year-end.
QNA reports that during the Cabinet’s weekly meeting yesterday, the following was decided:
“In support to the private sector, the Cabinet decided instead to rely on private insurance companies with experience in the field to provide health insurance services, and the continued provision of health insurance services for citizens without any additional burdens, and that the Supreme Council of Health shall, during a brief period, agree with a company or more from the private sector health insurance companies to provide health insurance services to citizens.”
The SCH followed up by announcing that Seha would be suspended as of Dec. 31.
That appears to mean that effective next week, all Qataris who have been benefitting from the national healthcare scheme will no longer be able to use it.
Instead, according to QNA:
“The SCH in cooperation with the Ministry of Finance will provide Qatari nationals with insurance coverage through one or more leading insurance companies in the country within the next six months, and without placing extra burden on the citizens.”
However, it remains unclear how Qataris’ medical bills will be paid for from Jan. 1, 2016 to the time that their new private insurance takes effect.
On Twitter, the SCH said more information about the decision will soon be forthcoming.
However, questions about how nationals will access healthcare in the coming months and a debate over the necessity of the changes is already heating up.
Under the trending hashtag #ايقاف_التامين_الصحي (suspending health insurance), some Qataris hailed the suspension of Seha, saying private hospitals and clinics were abusing the program.
قرار في محله. أصبحت خزينة الدولة مفتوحة لعيادات ومستشفيات وأشخاصا استباحوا لأنفسهم كل درهم موجود
— عبدالله البوحدود ?? (@Albuhaddod) December 23, 2015
Translation: The decision is correct, as the state’s treasury has become up for grabs for clinics, hospitals and people, who exploit every dirham available.
Translation: Headline in red says “Canceling Seha and transferring it to private insurance companies. Nurse says, “Doctor! This is a catastrophe, we have to practice medicine again!” The sign in the back reads, “private hospital.”
Others wondered how their bills would be paid and whether outsourcing Seha to private insurance companies would be more effective.
Translation: I want to know why this (decision) wasn’t announced after the state held an agreement with (private) insurance companies to prevent the confusion that happened?
Previously, Qataris received free healthcare at a limited number of government-run hospitals and clinics. But under Seha, the government footed the bill for treatment from privately-run hospitals, clinics, health centers, opticians and other service providers across the country.
The announcement comes only two months after Qatar’s Minister of Public Health said that Qatar’s national health scheme would be extended to all expats next year.
Foreigners living in Qatar and visitors to the country were initially supposed to be covered by the plan this year. But currently, Seha, which launched in August 2013, only covers the local Qatari population.
This is thought to be in part because officials are still working through issues with the existing scheme, including overcrowding and long waiting times to see doctors.
No official reason has been given for the decision to freeze Seha, but the move will take effect one day before Qatar’s new fiscal budget is implemented.
The 2016 plan, which was approved by the Emir last week, dramatically cuts expenditures in anticipation of the country’s first financial shortfall in 15 years.
Under Seha, Qataris’ health insurance is paid for by the government, while employers were to cover the costs of their expat workers.
Thus, curbing healthcare expenditure could be a part of the overall belt-tightening that is going on in almost all sectors.
In October, public health minister Abdullah bin Khalid Al-Qahtani said that in the 15 months since the scheme began, Seha has paid out nearly QR1.3 billion for patient care.
And earlier this year, NHIC acting CEO Dr. Faleh Mohamed Hussain Ali said that Seha had dealt with more than 1 million visits from patients.
With an estimated Qatari population of around 300,000, this equates to more than three visits per person.