By Chularat Saengpassa
Starting from October 1, nearly 11.7 million registered lowincome earners will be able to use their cards to ease living costs. Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, who oversees economic affairs, expects users to spend some Bt3.2 billion a year via welfare cards. He said the government also planned to empower lowincome earners via training so as to raise opportunities for them and their children.
Yet, the welfare card distribution has sparked concerns that the government will be able to dictate how low income earners should live and deprive other Thais of state welfare.
Aids Access Foundation director Nimit Tienudom said: “The welfare cards have credits for travel expenses and commodities, etc. It is as if the government will exert its power over the poor, telling them where to spend and what they should not hope for.”
He said the social status of lowincome earners would fall further in the eyes of others, as they would have to produce their cards to get welfare.
Welfare card holders will be able to get Bt300 worth of commodities from designated shops each month, if they earn less than Bt30,000 a month. If their income is between Bt30,000 and Bt100,000, the welfare card will entitle them to just Bt200 worth of commodities monthly.
Welfare cards have set limits for train rides at only Bt500, interprovincial bus rides at Bt500, and BMTA/BTS/MRT bus rides at Bt500 per month. Those living outside Greater Bangkok, which covers the capital and its adjacent provinces, will not get any travel allowances for BTS/MRT/BMTA rides.
“State welfare should be for everyone,” said Nimit. “The government should determine appropriate welfare for its citizens.”
He was worried that the launch of welfare cards would pave the way for the government to use the same concept as a poverty line in the state healthcare scheme.
Nimit said the government has in recent years seen the universal healthcare scheme as a burden.
The programme now offers most medical services to nearly 50 million Thais for free. If the government changes the approach, the current beneficiaries, particularly those with chronic illnesses, will be affected.
Baramee Chairat, an advisor of the Assembly of the Poor, said the new system is not welfare as it covers only low income people rather than being accessible to all. According to Baramee, the system will further widen economic inequality and the universal healthcare system will be affected, as those who are registered as welfare card holders will have to pay a portion of medical expenses.
He said a future system would likely be similar to the previous Bt500 perfamily medical cards issued to low income people who could get free basic medical services but have to pay more for additional services. This would also affect the middle classes since their medical expenses will rise and they could face bankruptcy from expensive medical bills.
Anusorn Tamajai, dean of Rangsit University’s Faculty of Economics, said that while Thailand needed welfare reform, the government’s decision to launch welfare cards was a departure from the previous concept of giving basic education and healthcare services to everyone as enshrined in the 1997 charter.
Anusorn suspected that the government might consider revamping the universal healthcare system soon after adopting the welfare card system for the nearly 11.7 million lowincome people, to reduce the budget burden from everrising healthcare bills. While other countries had different approaches to delivering healthcare services, including the copayment system, Anusorn felt any change to Thailand’s universal healthcare programme was too significant to be made during the military installed regime.
“Given that the change may affect everyone here in Thailand, the issue should be left for an elected government to decide, because the decision will reflect the needs of the majority of people,” Anusorn said.
He said there are three major systems of social basic rights. First, the liberal regime as used by the US is a system that helps only the poorest and relies heavily on market mechanisms. The US approach emphasises encouraging people to help themselves first, with the state take care of only those deemed to be unable to help themselves.
Second, the corporate regime is a system based on employment, with employees and workers paying into medical and other benefits plans.
Third, the social democratic regime is a system that provides welfare to everyone regardless of their economic conditions.
Countries taking the social democratic approach need to have high incomes and tax rates with a relatively small population and advanced economic development, such as those in Scandinavia and Germany.
Anusorn said this crucial matter should be decided by a democratically elected government, since it affects every person and any policy should reflect the needs of the majority of people.