Social leaders clamor for more focus on healthcare and pensions

POSTED: 01/23/12 6:21 PM

St. Maarten – Leaders in two social organizations have applauded Minister of Public Health, Social Affairs and Labor Cornelius De Weever’s “bold” statement on Wednesday that staffers in the Department of Social Affairs must offer better service to their clients.
“Either shape up or ship out,” the minister said.
President of St. Maarten United Non-Governmental Organizations Federation (SUNFED) Alberto Bute believes the minister is finally echoing what the social groups have been championing all along. Some of the organization’s members have already told Bute they believe that the minister’s pronouncement will have a positive effect. Bute himself has already observed a shift towards more focus on dealing with social issues.
“We hold what he said very dearly because others are finally acknowledging the truth with regards to marginalized groups. Everyone deserves to be treated well and we applaud his guts,” the SUNFED president said.

Alberto Bute-President of the St. Maarten United Non-Governmental Organizations Federation outlines the plans of approach for eradicating poverty.

First Vice President of the St.Maarten Senior Citizens and Pensioners Association (SMSPA) Raymond Jesserun commends the minister’s stance but said he could not support the continuation of “poverty pensions”. His sentiments come on the heels of a recent public outcry for social equalities within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Come next week, the Government and Parliament of St. Maarten will receive a request from SMSPA to host a follow up consultation on the social group’s cause. This is part of SUNFED and SMSPA’s efforts to rally grass roots movements here and in Curacao to bring international attention to the disparities in the health care and pension systems that exist in the Dutch Caribbean and the Netherlands.
“We should copy the same example of Dr. Martin Luther King , his non-violent way of demanding equal rights, you have to stand up for a rights because if we keep quiet nothing will change,” Jesserun said.

The Dutch pension system may be characterized in terms of three pillars; basic state old-age pension under a statutory insurance scheme, supplementary pension schemes by virtue of the employer and private savings for retirement. The Dutch General Old Age Pensions Act (AOW) provides for basic state pensions for people aged 65 and over. In addition, the AOW scheme includes a supplementary allowance for partners and beneficiaries who are under 65 and have either no income or an income below a certain level. The Dutch Surviving Dependents’ Act (ANW) provides for state benefits for people whose partner has died and for children younger than 16 who have lost one or both parents.

Non-governmental organizations attempted unsuccessfully to have a hearing with the fifty-five parliamentarians that attended last week’s Inter Parliamentary Kingdom Consultation (IPKO). They do believe the proactive way they and the Windward Islands Chamber of Labor Unions (WICLU) promoted their cause during the week of the meeting got them some attention. Just before the meeting ended on Friday, Chairman of the Permanent Committee on Kingdom Relations and Inter-parliamentary Affairs Roy Marlin requested that social inequalities be placed on the agenda for the next IPKO, which will be held in the Netherlands in June. Marlin’s request was supported by the Aruban delegation.
“We got immediate feedback…it was the Aruban delegation leader that came with a proposal to mediate and place this agenda point with the presidium. He said it is very important when social organizations of a country come up with concerns and agenda points that these things be addressed. We hope that it will be honored and that it will be discussed in The Hague, but for now it is already sufficient that it is in the minutes of the conference,” Jesserun said.

First Vice President of the St. Maarten Senior Citizens and Pensioners Association speaks of his resolve.

The social organizations have been clamoring for economic, social and cultural rights that are equal to their Dutch counterparts in Europe. The grouping has premised its position on the fact that the Kingdom of the Netherlands has signed on to the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Vienna Convention.
The United Nations adopted ICESCR in 1966 but the multilateral treaty has been in force since 1976. Those signing on to the treaty committed to granting health, education, standard of living and labor rights of an adequate standard to their citizens. Twenty one countries including the United States expressed reservations to the application of the covenant but the Netherlands signed on fully. Article 28 of the convention states that “the provisions of the present Covenant shall extend to all parts of federal States without any limitations or exceptions.”
Under heading ‘Territorial Scope of Treaties’, Article 29 of the Vienna Convention stipulates that “unless a different intention appears from the treaty or is otherwise established, a treaty is binding upon each party in respect of its entire territory.”
Because of the content of agreements the social organizations have taken the position that premium healthcare, for example, remains the responsibility of the Netherlands and not the Government of St. Maarten with its current limitations. Jesserun pointed out that all of the blame for social inequalities cannot be laid at the door of the present administration.
“They could only deal with some of the issues but not all. It is only one year that passed. How can you expect a baby country to deal with all of the problems that not even the former country, Netherlands Antilles could solve? And how can you expect a country to work when the mother country within the Kingdom has dominated and dictated all of the development within the Dutch Caribbean,” the SMSPA first vice president said.

Ultimate goal
The group sees the highest attainable level of healthcare and social provisions as their ultimate goal. They have accused the Dutch government of discrimination and creating “false arguments” such as differences in the level of economic development and culture as the reason for the varying socio-economic systems.
“Do we all have to go to Holland to get the same treatment?” Jesserun questioned.
“We are Dutch because the Kingdom Charter says so. They should be no discrimination,” Bute added.

In the year 2009, the fifth annual edition of the Euro Health Consumer Index ranked the national health care system in the Netherlands as number one out of thirty three countries. The Netherlands still remains the only country which has consistently been among the top three in the total ranking of any European Index according to Health Consumer Powerhouse (HCP). In 2005 HCP said that “the signals of expanding inequalities in healthcare following on the financial crisis challenge EU principles of solidarity and equity. It is not only a matter of money but attitude. With patient mobility growing around Europe, there is a strong need for transparency exposing the pros and cons of the national healthcare systems.” The report also suggested that for healthcare systems to move forward they must not only be driven by economic wealth but also by good policy, the expectation and growing needs of its citizens as well.

On January 12, 2012, a petition was sent to the Council of Ministers for the Minister Plenipotentiary Mathias Voges to be instructed to raise the issue of inequalities at the Kingdom Council of Ministers in The Hague. Bute argues that St.Maarten is not in a position to finance many lofty plans but has a definitive role in issuing instructions to its representative in The Hague.
“We know that St. Maarten is not in a position to finance all of the realization of all these rights. The colony was never developed up to the standard of the metropolis. They have hindered the economic development of the Netherlands Antilles by giving them autonomy without the right tools to function but we still have a voice,” Jesserun said.

During the IPKO, a visit was made to the St.Maarten Medical Centre (SMMC) with a view to expansion of its facilities. They discussed how to improve the facilities at SMMC but they never suggested that the system become as the same standards as the Netherlands.
“That is why Saba and Statia are being referred to Guadeloupe and Colombia for healthcare. They want to walk around with the hospital as a trophy but they have not taken the entire healthcare system into consideration, the wellbeing of all citizens is a part of development,” Bute said.
The way forward
Bute urged citizens not to become fearful of threats like the recent statements made by Dutch Senator Peter van Dijk that the Dutch should get rid of the islands. In fact he sees the utterance as an opportunity for St.Maarten to prepare for independence.
“Since 1948 we should have prepared for independence and if they are true to their word then they would prepare us for such and it calls for investment for the country to develop in healthcare, education etc.”
The social groupings have been comparing the standards of social care to that of the French. On a daily basis they say they are confronted with persons who say they unable to survive on the meager pension payments and substandard health care. Medications have become more costly and food as well. Even the National Health Insurance program that is being worked on will just be an extension of SZV and may never compare to Holland’s healthcare system, Jesserun has concluded.
“We hear them say it is too expensive to get this thing to the Netherlands level. They do not want to pay more premiums but we say it is our right to get it. We, as a people, have been settling for less,” Jesserun said.

In the Netherlands everyone that makes less than 1,000 euro or 2,500 guilders ($1,388.89) receives free healthcare and social protection by the state. However, regardless of the amount of income a Dutch citizen receives, everyone is still afforded the same standard of healthcare. SUNFED has suggested that since the majority of St. Maarten’s residents do not even accrue 2, 500 guilders per month, then the responsibility lies with the Dutch government to take care of its citizen’s healthcare needs with combined tax dollars from the Netherlands and St.Maarten.

The grouping will now be looking closely at the how the agenda point on social inequalities is handled at the next IPKO meeting in June. In the meantime, they have decided to push for inclusion in the stakeholder process where social policies are formed by the government. The social organizations said that they will not wait to be approached but will actively seek out the nation’s decision makers. SMSPA and SUNFED have a combined membership of more than four hundred people who have decided to “step up the pressure because silence is considered betrayal.”

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