Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler says there can be no running away from the fact that Government’s health care budget of $700 million plus a year is high, or that significant questions remain about how it will be financed in the future.
However, he has ruled out the introduction of a proposed “fat tax”, while warning that any such move by Government to levy Barbadians based on their eating habits would be “grossly discriminatory”.
The suggestion was made during Tuesday’s Ministry of Health-organized national town hall meeting on financing of public health care at which the Director of the Chronic Disease Research Centre at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Dr Alafia Samuels was among those arguing strongly for Government to “tax the fat”.
Many participants also expressed the view that the combination of an aging population and rising obesity placed an added strain on the public health care system.
However, asked to comment on the suggestion within the context of his upcoming National Budget, Sinckler said he was simply not prepared to go there, adding that it would be “challenging, if not impossible, to implement such a tax.
“It would really be discriminatory and grossly so, against persons who may be overweight or obese or whatever the classification would be [and] I don’t think that is an approach that we would want to use,” the minister told Barbados TODAY.
However, he did not rule out the possibility that other revenue-generating measures would be imposed on the vital health sector, even though he called for a shifting of the current debate away from talk of a “fat tax”.
“It would be nice to have a discussion on how we push the population to become healthy and what devices we can use, whether they be fiscal instruments, health interventions at the basic level in terms of prevention or public education. That is where we need to come down on,” he suggested, while referring to the old adage that “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure”.
“I think that is what the Ministry of Health and the Government are focusing on and I believe all Barbadians should want to buy into,” he stressed.
At the same time, Sinckler touted recently offered concessions on healthy foods and Government’s removal of “unhealthy” items from its tax-exempt Basket of Goods, saying it had realized some savings and earned “a little bit more revenue”.
“At the same time there are other things we all have to do and it all goes within the national context of ensuring a socially balanced society that is economically viable and of course environmentally sound,” he told Barbados TODAY.
The Minister of Finance also highlighted the recent introduction of a ten per cent tax on sweet drinks, saying the aim was not only to make money, but also to “nudge” Barbadians in a particular direction.
“When we first announced it, a lot of people poo pooed it, but a lot of countries are doing it. Therefore, there must be some value to it and that value is not just statistics and saying, ‘I want to get five million more in revenue’,” he said, pointing to countries in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.
However, he said it was still too early to say whether the tax was meeting its financial targets.
Pressed on whether there would be any new taxes on health care in his upcoming Budget, Sinckler replied: “I can’t say that at this stage, no. The discourse is going on. There are many different models that are being proposed . . . when we believe we have had sufficient discourse to be able to sit down and make an intelligent decision then we will make proposals to the country, but the process has started
. . . and we look forward to seeing all the recommendations that come forward.”
However, he did acknowledge the recent suggestion made by the Barbados Association of Medical Practitioners (BAMP) that public health care could no longer be a free for all.
“From what I read in your own newspaper they are looking at a more private sector driven model,” he said. But when asked if he agreed with the doctors’ recommendation, the Minister of Finance said, “I have no particular views at this point in time. I would have to see the full proposal.”
However, he acknowledged that a new financing model had to arrived at for public health care.
“Whether that be through regular taxes, strategic partnerships with private entities, what ever mechanism, it has to be financed. At the end of the day, our ultimate objective is to have universal access for all Barbadians to high quality health care services that are efficient and that are provided at a cost that does not pose systemic threats to the overall economy,” he told Barbados TODAY.
He acknowledged that Government has been able to finance the country’s health care costs up until now, but said, “when we look at the demographical trends, the medical trends, both in terms of illnesses which are cropping up and the costs of treating those illness, it is not a discussion about what is happening now but what is happening five, ten years down the road. And from all that I have heard, the answer [to whether Government can continue to afford health care] is no,” Sinckler told Barbados TODAY.
He warned that health, sanitation and education were issues that had to be confronted nationally, suggesting that there was no “better year to do so than our 50th year of independence”.