CSOs: ‘Universal health care is one of the pillars of a good pandemic response’
SOCIALWATCH PHILS·SATURDAY, MAY 9, 2020
Social Watch Philippines
Alternative Budget Initiative Health Cluster
Philhealth was recently put in the hot seat when it publicly cited a provision in the Universal Health Care (UHC) Law of a three percent (3%) premium hike for all direct contributors, which includes Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). According to the law’s guidelines, 2020 will be a transitory period, while the full implementation of the hike will take place in 2021. Given the unfortunate timing of the announcement, with hundreds of thousands of workers now displaced from their jobs due to the pandemic, a public backlash in the media ensued, especially from OFWs. Despite President Duterte’s instruction to Philhealth to temporarily suspend the ill-timed hike in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the attacks in media against the Universal Health Care (UHC) law in its entirety continued, placing the UHC law in a bad light.
“We call for strengthening UHC by ensuring equity and maximum benefit for all Filipinos to cope with and tide over the coronavirus disease (COVID)-19 pandemic”, Social Watch Philippines (SWP), through the Alternative Budget Initiative (ABI-Health Cluster), a network of civil society organizations (CSOs) said. SWP-ABI Health believes that there is a need for the public to better understand the UHC law and its potential benefits for the Filipino people, including OFWs.
“We propose for a freeze in the mandatory payment of health insurance premiums of all OFWs and certain wage and salaried workers pending a complete review of this provision in the UHC law. We urge Philhealth and the national government to listen to the plight of the Filipino workers, especially at this time when Filipinos here and abroad are experiencing job losses and salary cuts, and various forms of difficulties”, SWP-ABI Health Cluster added.
In a nutshell, the UHC is a significant breakthrough helping Filipinos to cope better with the health emergency. It promises to transform the health system by institutionalizing health promotion and empowering people to make healthy decisions through the development of enabling environments, including public information and education programs. This will be achieved through (a) the automatic enrollment of all Filipinos to Philhealth regardless of ability to pay, (b) the strengthening of public health personnel through more competitive salaries, among others, (c) shifting and emphasizing the importance of primary care by providing additional benefits for the prevention of illnesses as well as for palliative care, (d) expanding outpatient coverage, which includes the provision of medicines; and (e) the strengthening of local health systems.
According to the group, the full and proper implementation of the UHC law is one of the strongest foundations for a good public response to health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic. Its full implementation will address the systemic weaknesses that plague the public health system such as the fragmented service delivery, undervalued primary care, lack of health personnel and long-time neglect of health promotion. Other social determinants of health such as cramped living conditions, access to water and sanitation, adequate knowledge on nutrition among others are strong complements to UHC.
Meanwhile, SWP-ABI Health Cluster also expressed serious concerns over the said additional PhilHealth contribution from an equity lens. “Many workers are complaining that this provision is a regressive scheme as it further reduces the take home pay of low-income earners - the ordinary workers and employees. For overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), most of whom are already paying health insurance in their respective host countries, the mandatory contribution to PhilHealth is seen as another form of double taxation”, SWP-ABI Health said.
In the case of helping ease the stress of OFWs and their families due to the pandemic, SWP-ABI Health proposes the following measures to Philhealth:
1. To reiterate, freeze the 3% mandatory collection of Philhealth contribution for all OFWs, including individual workers earning ₱40,000.00 and below until a more thorough review of the contribution scheme under the UHC law is done;
2. Review the imposition of an annual premium to sea-based OFWs given that the duration of many of their contracts is less than a year;
3. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many OFWs have lost their jobs. With this change in employment status, their PhilHealth membership should be converted from direct to indirect contributors with government subsidizing them;
4. The government must launch a comprehensive but easy to understand information drive to explain the benefits of the UHC to the Filipino public, including OFWs. For OFWs, they must be informed on where and how they can claim their benefits abroad.
SWP-ABI Health added that not all of its public health advocacies are contained in the UHC law. However, CSOs and peoples’ organizations (POs) that actively campaigned for its passage, believe that it is better to have a UHC law that can be viewed as a ‘work-in-progress’ rather than no law at all. “There is a provision in the law about conducting a comprehensive assessment after years of implementation. We intend to participate in this assessment, and help improve the law,” Ms. Maria Fatima Villena of SWP-ABI Health explained.
The group underscored that the UHC Law is still in its infancy stage. “There will be a lot of implementation issues that will surface in the near to medium term.
“Government should collaborate closely with all stakeholders, especially CSOs and POs, in order to ensure that the law is effectively implemented,” they suggested.
Social solidarity is a principle that upholds the rights of all individuals and groups in society to a dignified existence and therefore promotes inequality-reducing measures such as agrarian reform and progressive taxation. This same principle is enshrined in the UHC law, embodied when those who have the capacity to pay (direct contributors: formally employed, including professionals and migrant workers), give more than those who cannot pay (indirect contributors: informal workers, those subsidized due to special laws) because this ensures universal access to public health services, thereby enhancing cohesion and integration in society.
Finally, the SWP Health cluster avers that guided by compassion, social solidarity and equity, Philhealth should be able to think of ways to extend its benefits to all Filipinos wherever they are, regardless of their resident status. They cite the UHC law which mandates the government to promote the right to health and universal access to a comprehensive set of quality and cost-effective interventions for all Filipinos.
Ms. Maria Fatima Villena (0918-3398209)
Mr. John Christian Payumo (0936-6367184)
Social Watch Philippines (SWP), is a network of a hundred civil society organizations advocating for transparent, efficient, accountable and pro-poor use of public funds.
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