Leading Lebanese businesses voiced their total rejection Wednesday of a Cabinet decision to hike a ceiling on National Social Security  Fund fees, as private hospitals and labor unions hailed it as step toward improving the fund’s services.
Warning that the measure could result in layoffs and restrain employment amid a worsening economy, Mohammad Choukeir, head of the Beirut Chambers of Commerce, told The Daily Star that escalatory steps would be announced by the Economic Committees in a meeting Monday.
“This decision is a part of an orientation that aims to impoverish the Lebanese private sector, amid unprecedented difficulties,” he said. “Many businesses are not being able to pay salaries, let alone affording fees.”
In its session Tuesday, the Cabinet agreed to hike a cap on the income subject to NSSF  maternity and sickness subscription fees, from LL1.5 million ($1,000) to LL2.5 million.
Maximum fees paid by business owners will increase by LL70,000 from LL105,000 to LL175,000 while fees paid by employees will increase from LL30,000 to LL50,000.
The sickness and maternity branch fees amount to 9 percent. Employers pay 7 percent, while employees cover the remaining 2 percent.
The fund had conditioned paying higher hospitalization fees to private hospitals on increasing its income. Private hospitals have on many occasions refused to offer health care to NSSF patients until the fees are increased. Recently, many hospitals began limiting the number of NSSF patients they accept.
Suleiman Haroun, head of the Private Hospitals Association, said hospitals would now offer services to all NSSF-insured citizens. He added the new fees would be applied starting from the beginning of 2013.
Haroun denied that the measure will have an impact on the private sector.
“These fees affect a small portion of businesses in general,” he told the Central News Agency Wednesday. “It is required by law that the income and expenditures of the sickness and maternity branch be balanced in order not to face a deficit,” he added.
But Haroun added that further dialogue is needed between the NSSF and private hospitals, particularly on services including dialysis, prosthesis and artificial arteries.
He said contracts between the Fund and private hospitals are in need of restudy: “If these urgent issues are not renegotiated, then we will be back to square one.”
The head of the General Labor Confederation, Ghassan Ghosn, praised the measure as key to shoring up medical services to NSSF patients. But he said that private hospitals and physicians should not, from now on, charge patients any extra amounts or deny health care to anyone covered by the fund.
“Right from the beginning, we preconditioned agreeing to [hiking hospitalization fares], to improving health coverage to NSSF patients,” he told The Daily Star.
“The NSSF board has made it clear that any hospital that continues to charge additional fees will see their contracts revoked,” he added.
Many experts say the major reason behind financial problems at the Fund, particularly its sickness and maternity branch, are continuous delays by the government in paying its 25 percent share of the fund’s budget.
It is estimated that the government owes the NSSF in excess of $500 million in arrears since the beginning of the year.