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Social Security in the EU Public Service : an overview

Social security? For us? European civil servants? What is the point?

At first glance, one might think that we, the Brussels bureaucrats (not to mention those of Petten or Ispra), would not need the safety net provided by social security, which is supposed to exist for precarious populations … But let us not be mistaken: there are many, many benefits and exigencies of social security,  even for us.

In this article, we will take a look at the many facets of this form of organised solidarity that social security in fact is. We will pay particular attention to health insurance, one of its most important branches.

Social security is a major achievement of the workers’ movement, which has been in the making in the various states since the end of the 19th century. It is the fruit of numerous struggles that the workers’ movement, whether in its trade union or political form, has waged over the decades, and it is not yet over.

Our systems, defined essentially by the European Public Service Statute, have one fundamental thing in common with those of the Member States: they are financed jointly by employers and employees (according to their income), and they are for the benefit of those insured in need (largely independently of their income level). In this sense we speak of organised solidarity.

But there are also two important features: Where national systems usually refer to a limited territory in which the system applies, ours is floating in the air, and is applicable worldwide. This creates a series of inevitable complications. And secondly: Normally there are three stakeholders: The legislator, the employers, the employees (or insured). In our case, legislators and employers are the same thing. And this leads to certain structural imbalances, sometimes dangerous. But let’s look at it in detail.

Old-age insurance

This is the centerpiece of social security and absorbs the largest part of the resources deployed. One third of the funding is provided by a compulsory levy on our salaries, the rest is financed by employers. The pension is provided regardless of where the pensioner lives.

It is undoubtedly one of the most attractive points of the salary package offered to civil servants and other agents: Calculated on the last salary (and not any average), the level of our pensions is high, compared to national systems. Added to this is the fact that the guarantees offered to surviving spouses and orphans of a deceased insured person are generous (and in part obtained by Union Syndicale in a landmark judgement in the 1970s).

Old-age insurance funds also finance disability allowances, with which there are no particular problems.

Sometimes, colleagues have difficulties in transferring, in one way or another, rights acquired in another system. Union Syndicale provides all the necessary assistance in what are sometimes very complex cases.

As we said above, the fact that legislators and employers are the same thing in our country also poses a problem. The legislator, when legislating on old age insurance (most recently in 2004 and 2014), is not neutral, but endorses its interests as an employer, wanting to reduce the cost. This is why we have twice in a short period of time been subjected to measures such as raising the retirement age (which now puts us at the top of all systems in the EU), reducing the accrual rate (i.e. how much a year of service counts), or reducing the possibilities of preparing for retirement by working part-time.

What annoys our employers is the bill for the future: Two thirds of the pension service is financed by them, but only when the pension is due. We, the employees, pay every month, during our service. And for a long time, the European civil service was young and growing: for the first 50 years, the employers had nothing to take out of their pockets, the employees’ contributions were enough to pay all the pensions of the moment. This is over now, and the part to be financed by the employers is growing very fast. There are more than a hundred billion euros corresponding to employers’ contributions since 1958 that have not been set aside to pay for future pensions; this forms a sort of debt of the Institutions towards their staff, which must be found in the annual budgets to come…

Accident insurance

This is a very small branch of our social security system, but it is very important for those who are unfortunate enough to suffer an accident, whether at work or in private life. Coverage against the risks of a private accident is a very positive point of our social security, as national systems usually exclude them.

Unemployment insurance

The problem with this branch of our social security is that it is needed more and more often! All temporary and contract staff must be covered, and their share of the funding is deducted from their salaries, as with other insurance. For the past 15 years, employers have unfortunately been recruiting massively from these precarious categories of staff, and the colleagues concerned often find themselves unemployed at the end of their contracts.

Family allowances

Yes, family allowances are also an integral part of our social security. There is

  • the household allowance
  • the dependent child allowance: higher than in most of our Member States. It should be noted that dependent children (and spouses without significant income) are insured free of charge in our health insurance. Let us mention a loophole in our system: These benefits are limited to the first generation. In other words, unlike most national systems: When a colleague has a dependent child who becomes a parent in turn, while still being dependent, there is no provision for the needs of this grandchild, not even health insurance.
  • School allowance: very generous compared to other systems, it allows us to finance a good part of our children’s school fees, including university fees.
  • Parental allowance: obtained in the 2004 reform negotiations by Union Syndicale, we can now benefit from 12 months of parental leave, for each child under 12, and from family leave when a family member needs serious assistance. During parental leave, an allowance helps to compensate for the temporary loss of salary. There is still room for improvement here, and the amount of the allowance should make parental leave more attractive.

Maternity insurance

In our country, it does not form a separate branch of social security, but is integrated into health insurance (see below). What is curious, and would probably not be subject to judicial review, is that maternity-related medical expenses incurred before the birth are not reimbursed at 100%, but at the usual health insurance rate.

The wages of young mothers on maternity leave are paid by the employer, not by the health insurance. Over the decades, Union Syndicale has been able to put an end to discrimination against young mothers: they continue to progress in the grade, and remain eligible for promotion, during their leave.

Help for the disabled and other dependents

This is certainly the poor relation of our social security system. In the Member States, a lot of progress has been made to enable the best possible life for the people concerned, but for the staff of the Institutions, there are only bricks and mortar.

There is no provision for contributions to a dedicated branch of social security.

As regards medical expenses linked to a disability or dependency, the colleagues concerned have to struggle with the imperfections of a health insurance scheme that was not designed for these situations, and which does not always provide adequate cover.

For non-medical expenses (e.g. house or car adjustments), colleagues depend on the goodwill of their administration and the social budget that may still be available. In other words, it is better to avoid a handicap when working in a small structure such as an agency …

This is certainly the area with the greatest potential for future trade union work, among all the branches presented in this article.

Health insurance

Where to start, where to stop in this field of multiple failures…

First of all, to avoid any misunderstanding, let’s pay tribute to the many colleagues (probably not enough, though) who deal daily with the thousands of claims, reimbursements, hospital bills, prior authorisations, etc., coming from all over the world, in 50 languages or more. It’s a Sisyphean task that never stops. If there are problems, it is certainly not due to them. Thank you!

Let’s start with a structural problem. Usually, the health insurance funds in our Member States are jointly managed by employers and insured persons, their two sources of funding. In our country, the JSIS (Joint Sickness Insurance Scheme) is managed by the employers alone, who have delegated it to the Commission, and more precisely to the PMO.

The Commission alone decides how many resources it makes available to the scheme, who are the managers, executors, doctors, etc., what the service orders are, and above all, what the JSIS covers and what it does not cover. It is true that it adopts the lowest level of regulation, the General Implementing Provisions, only after consultation with the unions and some joint bodies, but it is not obliged to follow their advice. And the higher levels of regulation, the Staff Regulations (Article 72) and the Common Regulations, are not subject to any negotiation.

It is true that there is a Management Committee for Health Insurance (CGAM), in which all the institutions and their staff are represented. But it is only consultative in nature. It has nothing to do with a real Management Committee, except in name.

On behalf of the staff of all the Institutions, bodies and agencies, and on behalf of the insured, Union Syndicale demands that the JSIS become truly co-managed, between employers and insured.

Let us continue with a problem of philosophy. The JSIS deliberately limits itself to curative medicine. It refuses a preventive approach, even when all the studies show that it has a beneficial financial effect, to the extent that almost all national schemes emphasise it. It is a question of promoting healthy lifestyles, of contributing to the costs of practising a sport, for example; of detecting diseases at an early stage; of setting up a system for monitoring the progress of children; or simply of taking full responsibility for vaccination.

Then there is this very negative attitude towards alternative medicine, or towards psychological disorders. The regulations in force, with all their holes and ambiguities, allow the medical officers (chosen exclusively by the employers) to refuse to cover treatments that would not be discussed by national insurance companies.

Serious illness is certainly also a problem for the JSIS. The general logic of the scheme is to always leave part of the medical cost to be borne by the patient, in order to make him/her responsible and thus limit recourse to medicine that is not always necessary. However, there are vital treatments that do not allow this logic to be applied. The scheme has established 4 (debatable) criteria according to which it is decided whether a patient suffers from a so-called serious disease – in this case, he/she gets 100% reimbursement. Except that many life-saving treatments do not meet these ultimately arbitrary criteria. For example, malaria does not meet these criteria – the patient has to pay part of the costs. It is absolutely absurd to apply the logic of the non-reimbursable part to treatments without which the patient dies. What overuse do we want to avoid?

So far, no viable solution has been found for the problems that arise for medical expenses incurred outside Belgium (and this is the majority). Reimbursement ceilings are defined in relation to the prices usually charged in Belgium – but elsewhere they can be different, very different. A complex system of thousands of correction coefficients has been put in place, but it is far from perfect. For example, members in Italy may only receive 10% of a dental treatment. In general, our policyholders are often overcharged by private doctors or dentists, hospitals or paramedical providers (whether in Belgium or elsewhere). However, case law has clearly established the illegality of these practices: as the JSIS is a public and compulsory scheme, our insured persons must have access to care at the public prices agreed in each Member State.

And let’s finish our overview with the ceilings applied for the different treatments. These ceilings are reviewed, if there is sufficient trade union pressure, every 15 or 20 years. But in the meantime, prices change. More and more of the costs are borne by the members. Today, we are far from the legal (statutory) obligation to cover 80-85% of the total medical costs.

A complete overhaul of the whole scheme is needed!

Bernd Loescher

General Secretariat of the Council, Vice-President of USF and USB, Member of the Staff Committee Bureau.

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