Thousands respond to health insurance amnesty

Thousands of people packed Daman offices in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain yesterday as they rushed to avoid a Dh300 fine for failing to have valid health insurance.

Daman offices in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain (this is Al Ain) were packed with people yesterday as thousands rushed to avoid a Dh300 fine for failing to have valid health insurance.

Essam Al Ghalib / The National

Thousands of people packed Daman offices in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain yesterday as they rushed to avoid a Dh300 fine for failing to have valid health insurance. Police officers were called in to help handle the large crowds that spilled out of the Al Ain branch, where the average waiting time was reported to be eight hours.

A two-month amnesty for people to renew or subscribe to health insurance without paying a fine ends tonight when Daman offices will stay open until midnight. From tomorrow, employers will be fined Dh300 for every 30 days an employee is without insurance. Employers and sponsors in Abu Dhabi are legally required to provide all workers with health insurance. Daman issued about 13,000 policies over the past two days to employers who had failed to renew their employees' coverage.

Since the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi announced the amnesty on May 27, 150,000 people have come forward to either renew a lapsed policy or apply for a new one. Dr Sven Rohte, Daman's chief commercial officer, said the rush in the final two days was like a "tsunami". The Al Ain branch alone issued more than 5,500 policies in two days. "We have been going at full throttle to deal with the tsunami," said Dr Rohte. "We have increased our service time by 40 per cent a week. We want to make sure that the people who turn up to the branches will see no closed doors."

When the amnesty was announced, Daman, which issues around 85 per cent of health insurance policies in the emirate, calculated there were between 400,000 and 450,000 lapsed policies. Some of these, according to Dr Tariq Khan, Daman's director of retail sales, were likely to be people who had switched from individual to corporate policies or left the country. The rest were probably uninsured, he said. "We have processed between 100,000 and 150,000 policies so far," he said. "Ideally, if everyone complied with the law we wouldn't have had the situation we have had in the last two months.

"Everyone has left it to the last minute do to this, this is why there is such a rush on." Up to 90 per cent of the last-minute applications were for maids, drivers, chefs and farmhands. Khaled Abdullah, 27, an Emirati employed at the Al Ain Municipality, estimated there were already 600 people waiting when he arrived at the Al Ain branch at 6am. "It's now 3pm and I am still waiting," he said. "Daman needs more branches in the city, and they need to hire more staff."

Mr Abdullah had taken the day off work to renew the insurance of his 10 farmhands, maids and drivers. They have been without insurance for three months - which would normally equate to a Dh9,000 fine. "I couldn't take the time off work to come here before, but really had to today because I didn't want to pay Dh10 per day for each of my 10 employees, especially since their insurance expired three months ago." Dr Khan said everyone was working to try to accommodate the thousands of people taking advantage of the amnesty.

"This is not about the Government collecting money," he said, "it is about people having access to treatment if they fall ill." Mohammed Ali, 36, arrived at the Abu Dhabi branch at 11.30am and was still waiting four hours later. He was renewing the policy of his chef, which expired in September. "He didn't tell me it had expired," he said. "He didn't check the card. But his visa expires in two months so he needs insurance. I didn't want to pay the fine."

A work permit cannot be issued in Abu Dhabi without valid health insurance. Abdul Monem Ahmed, 32, also at the Airport Road branch in Abu Dhabi renewing the policy of his Bangladeshi farmhand, which expired three months ago. "I have been here for three hours," he said. "But I didn't want to incur the charges."