By Mario Casayuran
Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, chairman of the Senate health and demography committee, has pushed for a review of the Universal Health Care (UHC) Law following concerns from overseas Filipino workers regarding increased premium contributions.
In his opening statement during the hearing of the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee on the UHC law Wednesday, Go said that for universal health care to be sustainable, the country needs “to secure the necessary funding that will keep the program in good running shape.
“While we have to make sure that the funds are allocated properly, we also have to take into consideration that the world is in a crisis,” he explained
Go noted that “most people, especially individually paying members like our OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers), cannot afford to pay the premium at this time” due to the pandemic.
This prompted the government to make contributions voluntary for them at this time.
“Dahil nga sa ating sitwasyon ngayon, minabuti muna ni Pangulong Duterte na gawing boluntaryo ang kontribusyon ng ating mga OFWs,’’ he said. (Due to our current situation, President Duterte decided to make the contributions voluntary for our OFWs at this time.)
“Mag-focus muna tayo ngayon kung paano matulungan ang mga kababayan nating nangangailangan dahil sa COVID-19 crisis,’’ he stressed. (Let’s focus first on how we could help our countrymen who are in need due to COVID-19 crisis.)
“Lalo na ngayon na nasa health emergency ang bansa at nawawalan ng kakayahan ang mga Pilipinong magbigay ng dagdag na kontribusyon dahil sa krisis. Sabi nga nila, ‘in this time of crisis, every single peso counts,’’ he added (Especially now that the country is in a health emergency and the Filipinos have no means to give additional contributions due to the crisis. As they say, ‘in this time of crisis, every single peso counts.)
Go stressed that it is important “to study the need to amend the law in consideration of the concerns raised by some sectors.”
The senator from Davao also emphasized that the intent of the hearing is to revisit and review the implementation of the law, enhance it further to cope with current situation by taking into consideration the current plight of the Filipinos amid the global health crisis, and study possible amendments to improve it further without compromising the ability of the government to realize its vision of providing universal health care to all Filipinos.
In the hearing participated by multiple stakeholders, including OFWs from abroad, migrant worker representatives were able to voice out their concerns and advance their suggestions on how to improve the implementation of the UHC Law.
Executive Director Ellene Sana of the Center for Migrant Advocacy said that their immediate recommendation is the issuance of a moratorium on the collection of payments for OFWs until the end of the year or until the law has been amended.
But she stressed that they remain steadfast on their belief that OFWs should be included in the Universal Health Care policy.
Some OFW groups proposed for contributions to be voluntary under a fixed rate scheme.
Among OFW stakeholders and groups present during the hearing were representatives from the Blas Ople Policy Center, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ Commission on Migrants and Itinerant People, Philippine Migrants Rights Watch, Filipino community in the United Arab Emirates, United Filipino Global, Seafarers’ Group, United Filipino Global (Bay Area, California) and OFW Integration and Development, among others.
In response to their concerns, Go said that the government is always open to listen to them.
“Thank you to our OFWs who are abroad participating now. ‘Wag po kayong mag-alala, we are here for you and pakikinggan namin ang inyong hinaing,’’ he stated. (Don’t worry, we are here for you and we will listen to your concerns.)
During the hearing, Go also asked PhilHealth what steps it has taken so far after the directive of President Duterte to make premium contributions voluntary.
PhilHealth President Ricardo Morales responded, saying that they have issued an advisory to make premium contributions voluntary during the pandemic.
Morales noted, however, that to make such policy permanent, it would require a legislative amendment.
He also said during his presentation that the agency has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and is now reconfiguring its budget for fiscal year 2020.
Go then urged the state health insurance provider to prioritize the provision of primary care benefits to Filipinos, saying, “Pag-aralan nating i-prioritize ang primary care benefits, lalo na sa panahon ng pandemic. Kailangan ang check-ups, tests. Given the limited funds available, pag-aralan natin kung ano ang kailangan priority. (We will study to prioritize the primary care benefits, especially during the apndemic. There is a need for check-ups tests. Given the limited funds available, we will study what should be prioritized.)
He also took the opportunity to remind PhilHealth to ensure that the funds entrusted to PhilHealth are safely guarded and free from dubious schemes and corruption.
The Department of Health (DOH) gave a presentation about updates on the implementation of the Universal Health Care Law. According to the health department, they have so far disseminated the UHC Act and its Implementing Rules and Regulations, developed the UHC Policy Agenda and Crafting of Operational Guidelines, worked on the staffing requirements for UHC implementation and preparation of UHC integration sites, and the formulation of a catch up plan for UHC Act implementation under a new, better normal.
Go earlier urged for relief for OFWs who could be overburdened by the increased PhilHealth premium contributions.
He suggested that PhilHealth should study the provision of leeway to OFWs regarding their contribution increase.
“Ang hinihingi ko lamang ay mabigyan natin ng kinakailangang ‘palugit’ ang mga OFWs sa kabila ng pinapasan nilang hirap ngayon. Lahat ng palugit na pwede natin maibigay sa panahon ng krisis, ibigay na po natin,’’ he said. (I am only asking for a grace period for our OFWs during this critical times. All the time that we can possibly give them, let’s give it to them.)
He also asked the state health insurance provider to improve its information dissemination campaign to better inform Filipinos on where their contributions are going.
During the same hearing, Morales said that in response to Go’s earlier appeal, they are no longer requiring OFWs to pay their premium contributions as a requirement to secure an Overseas Employment Certificate (OEC).
“What we asked the OWWA (Overseas Workers Welfare Administration) to help us with is to register the departing OFWs but not to collect, and not to make the premium collection a requirement for the issuance of the OEC. So it has not been made a requirement for departure,” he explained.