By Surihe Gaomas WINDHOEK Skyrocketing expenses for medical care in the country are squeezing the last coins from the pockets of ordinary Namibians who belong to medical aid funds, while close to 80 percent of the country’s population still cannot afford medical aid cover. This shocking revelation came at the 2006 Namibian Association of Medical Aid Funds (NAMAF) Conference that ended in the capital yesterday. The two-day conference, held annually, was conducted under the theme ‘Quest for Value’. The 2006 NAMAF Conference, which was attended by over 80 members of various experts in the medical industry, namely, trustees of medical aid funds, consultants, service providers and experts from South Africa, was geared towards how best both the public and private health sectors can provide “quality, accessible and affordable health care” to all Namibians citizens. Medical costs are said to be 7% higher in Namibia than South Africa, which supplies the country with medications. Officially opening the two-day conference on Wednesday, Minister of Home Affairs and Immigration, Rosalia Nghidinwa, who delivered a speech on behalf of President Hifikepunye Pohamba, said that in light of the huge income disparities between the rich and poor in the country, the current medical costs and tariffs should be in line with the people’s living conditions and local economic realities on the ground. Quite alarmingly, only around 15 percent of the Namibian population enjoy private medical aid cover, leaving the rest to rely on government health care which places a heavy burden on state costs. It is reported that an average income earner in the country receives about N$2 500 a month from which N$850 is deducted for monthly medical aid cover, leaving only a meagre N$ 1 615 a month upon which the breadwinner and his extended family have to depend for a living. With inflation and rising costs of living, this has placed a tight squeeze on the ordinary Namibian. In view of this, President of NAMAF, Brian Nalisa, noted that in light of the escalation of health care costs in Namibia, “Government cannot sit idle and simply leave it to the market forces to dictate the cost of health care.” Expressing the same sentiment when speaking on behalf of the Deputy Minister of Finance, Tjekero Tweya, Maru Tjihumino questioned whether “these high costs (are) an unacceptable norm or is it affected by our current tariff structures which in my view are the NAMAF tariff fees, government tariff fees and something in between” . Another revelation that came to the fore during the two days of deliberations is that there is concern over the fact that fewer numbers of people are enrolling themselves with medical aid funds as a result of the high costs involved. “I am concerned about the direction in which we are moving, which may result that more people may opt out of private healthcare funding and become additional burdens of the state,” explained Nalisa, adding that this trend is already happening with AIDS patients who after their benefits are depleted, become state responsibility at the end of the day. This makes matters worse as the public health sector is already facing a growing challenge of a shortage of nurses, professional doctors and specialists in the field. Thus, there was an urgent need to recruit Kenyan nurses to help cope with the shortage of skilled manpower in that sector this year. There is presently a shortage of 1 000 nurses in the public health sector. Slow membership growth is therefore an uphill battle for NAMAF. Nalisa said: “Almost half of those employed in the private sector are without medical aid cover. That remains the challenge for all of us – how to get these people on our books.” Currently NAMAF has approximately 50 000 principal members and 150 000 lives or dependants covered by private medical aid funds in the country. Chief Executive Officer of NAMAF, Andre September, informed New Era that the numbers are not growing and this does not bode well for the industry’s future sustainability. Over the last few years, growth has remained stagnant at only 2 percent per annum. Now the move for all stakeholders is to look into rather offering low cost benefit packages in order to see significant progress in this industry, which is something that is already happening on the ground through public-private partnerships. Government is now joining hands with the private health sector in looking into alternate remedies that would lure the masses on board with medical aid cover. At the end of the conference, the various stakeholders anticipated to come up with recommendations to pave the way forward for the benefit of the industry and the public in general.
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