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NSSF could cover Palestinians at no additional cost: ILO

Palestinian refugees from the Yarmouk camp in Damascus gather to demand assistance in front of the UNRWA offices in Beirut last year.

BEIRUT: The National Social Security Fund could provide health care for registered Palestinian workers in Lebanon, the International Labor Organization said over the weekend, proposing reforms to enable the fund to do so at no additional cost. In 2010 Parliament passed Law 128, allowing Palestinian workers to receive end-of-service indemnity through the National Social Security Fund. But so far access to NSSF health services has not been granted.

“This has done little to increase their NSSF membership – only 2,372 refugee workers are currently enrolled. That’s partly because the opportunity cost is too high,” the ILO statement said. “The costs of which Palestinians and their employers have long borne in exchange for a fraction of the benefits due.”

Iman Khazaal, the author of the ILO-proposed legal amendments, said Palestinian workers and their employers were already obliged to contribute 23.5 percent of the monthly wage to three NSSF funds: maternity and health, family allowances and the end of service indemnity.

“But the only benefit available to Palestinian workers is the end of service indemnity – a lump sum when they retire,” she said.

Rather than pay for benefits they do not have access to, most Palestinian workers choose to opt out of the NSSF altogether, which leads to significant out-of-pocket expenses on health care, the ILO statement argued.

The ILO reforms, prepared alongside the Committee for the Employment of Palestinian Refugees and the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee, includes setting up of a separate account for Palestinians under the NSSF that places no financial burdens on the state.

“Additional funding could come from UNRWA [U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] and donor money to help balance the books,” the ILO said.

Samih Geha, the ILO consultant who conducted the financial assessment, said the cost of providing coverage for all NSSF-enrolled Palestinian workers would be $5 million per year over the next three years, and $21 million per year by 2021.

Asked if the proposed Palestinian NSSF health care account could cope with a sudden increase in registered workers, Geha pointed out that the number of potential eligible workers did not exceed 14,000.

According to a preliminary financial assessment launched at an experts’ meeting Friday, Palestinian workers have already contributed $14 million to NSSF coffers since 1992, “without any benefits in return.”

“The projected cost of providing health care coverage to all Palestinian refugees working in the formal economy would represent less than 2 percent of the total cost of health care provision to Lebanese workers,” Geha said.

Currently, health care constitutes some 12 percent of Palestinian household expenditures in Lebanon, nearly double the rate of the average Lebanese family.

With more than two-thirds of the Palestinian refugee population living below the poverty line, health care coverage would “relieve these workers of sizable expenditures, and allow them to redirect funds towards improving their living standards,” said CEP chair Samir Khoury.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 22, 2013, on page 5.

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