Seafarers' Medical Insurance

Sep 8, 2009

by Douglas B. Stevenson, Esq.
Director, Center for Seafarers' Rights
The Seamen's Church Institute

We are receiving more and more reports from seafarers that they are being required to purchase their own medical insurance. This practice, along with other disturbing trends, are attempts to cheat mariners out of their rights to free medical care.

One of the oldest and most enduring rights enjoyed by seafarers is their right to free medical care.  This right, called maintenance and cure, is so firmly established in maritime law, that it is an assumed part of every mariner’s employment contract.  It is a right so fundamental that no mariner can give it away by contract.

Maintenance and cure is a basic and simple right.   For centuries, seafarers have understood that if they become sick or are injured, their ship would pay for their medical care and living expenses until they were cured or reached maximum cure.  In addition, they would receive their wages during their recuperation until maximum cure or until the end of their contract – whichever occurred first.

Unlike workers compensation for land-based workers, there is no requirement in maintenance and cure for the sickness or injury to be work related or job connected. Even injuries sustained by a seafarer on shore leave are covered by maintenance and cure. All that is required is that the illness or injury occur during the term of employment. The only two exceptions to maintenance and cure are willful misconduct and intentionally concealing the medical condition from the employer at the time of employment.

Unfortunately, some parts of the maritime world have forgotten that protecting mariners’ rights to maintenance and cure is in the industry’s best interests and are trying to erode these rights. For example:

  • We recently learned from a musician that a cruise line was requiring all musicians to prove that they have private health insurance as a condition of employment. The cruise line is trying to avoid its responsibility to provide maintenance and cure, even the law is very clear that this right extends to musicians and all other crew members who “contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission.”
  • A recent opinion of the Liberian flag authority determined that in terms of the requirements of Liberian law, entertainers (and possibly all “hotel staff”) on board passenger vessels are not considered seamen and are not entitled to Liberia’s statutory maintenance and cure protections.
  • Panama has reduced maintenance and cure rights for seafarers working on passenger vessels. The 1998 changes to the Panamanian law limits the time that wages are paid to recuperating crewmembers on international passenger vessels to thirty days. Seafarers on all other Panamanian ships are entitled to be paid wages during their recuperation for up to twelve months.
  • Last year the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration approved a new standard contract for all Filipino seafarers working on ocean-going vessels. This new contract, among other changes, deprives Filipino seafarers of their historic right to maintenance and cure by limiting medical care benefits only to conditions that were directly caused by employment. The POEA effectively wiped out maintenance and cure for Filipino seafarers and replaced it with an inferior workers’ compensation scheme.

All who work at sea in the service of a ship face particular perils, endure substantial physical hardships, put up with strict discipline, and suffer lonesome separations. They have special lives and work and they need special laws to protect them.

Beware of employers who try to avoid their obligations to provide maintenance and cure for mariners. They may well try to avoid other obligations to their mariner employees too.