Realizing the dream of Universal Healthcare in the Philippines

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History was made Wednesday, 10 October, when the Senate passed on third and final reading Senate Bill 1896, its version of the Universal Health Coverage (UHC) bill.

The passage of the bill in the Upper Chamber signifies a giant step towards the realization of a truly accessible and quality healthcare for all Filipinos. We have long waited for this as the House version of this bill was passed in September 2017, over a year ago.

The UHC bill is close to my heart for I was the principal author of the House version of this bill. In fact, I filed my version of the bill on my very first day as a member of the House of Representatives. What prompted me was my belief that Filipinos who cannot afford treatment should not bear the heavy weight of paying off these medical services.

As a former constitutional law professor, I take to heart Article 13, Section 11 of the 1987 Constitution which provides “(t)he State shall adopt an integrated and comprehensive approach to health development which shall endeavor to make essential goods, health and other social services available to all the people at affordable cost.”

Indeed, this measure is groundbreaking because beneficiaries will be entitled to health coverage simply by virtue of their citizenship as Filipinos. Under the bill all Filipino citizens, including overseas Filipino workers (OFW), will automatically be covered by PhilHealth, whether as direct contributor (those who have the capacity to pay premiums) or indirect contributor (those sponsored by the government, including indigents and senior citizens).
This means the days of having to comply with a minimum number of monthly contributions in order to avail themselves of coverage will soon be a thing of the past.

I filed the bill in the House of Representatives because I also believe that health is not just merely the absence of disease or infirmity but a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being.

And now, I look forward to the day when this historic piece of legislation becomes a law which I hope will be before the year ends. I am optimistic that the bicameral conference committee will soon be convened to iron out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the UHC bill.

Exactly a week before the bill was passed in the Senate, I met with different government officials in Malacañang, including Health Secretary Francisco Duque, Senate Committee on Health and Demography chairman Sen. “JV” Ejercito, House Committee on Health chairman Rep. Helen Tan and several PhilHealth officials to discuss the state of universal healthcare in the country. We discussed the differing provisions of the House version and the measure that was still then pending in the Senate to fast-track this highly-anticipated law. This was also in keeping with President Rodrigo Duterte’s unrelenting commitment to provide the marginalized and disadvantaged with sufficient and better health care services.

One of the key features of the UHC bill is that it enables all individuals regardless of age, gender and social status to receive the full spectrum of health services they need, from health promotion to prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and palliative care.

For the longest time — quite inexcusably a long time for that matter — Filipinos have lived under a constant threat of poverty the moment an illness strikes. Health care services and medicine in the Philippines are often prohibitive to ordinary Filipinos as shown by the latest data that a vast majority of patients shoulder these expenses out of their own pockets.

The passage of the UHC bill in the Senate could not have come at a better time as this will be the best Christmas gift the government could give to our kababayan, most especially the underprivileged ones. They can now rest assured that the government will take care of them without them drowning in debt.

But the good news doesn’t end there. We made another significant milestone when the Senate and the House of Representatives ratified the Bicameral Conference Committee Report on the bill which aims to strengthen the existing policy on HIV/AIDS prevention in the country.

I, for one, am extremely elated with this news as like the UHC bill, I am also one of the principal authors of the House version of this bill. And like the UHC bill, I filed House Bill 253 on my first day in Congress which amends RA 8504 or The Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998. Indeed, the steady rise in HIV/AIDS cases over the recent months is a serious cause for concern and underscores the need for a comprehensive and updated legal framework addressing HIV and AIDS.

This ratification of the bicameral conference report ocould not have come at a better time as this piece of legislation would strengthen UHC given that the latter covers preventive health services. Soon, no Filipino living with HIV/AIDS can say that he or she did not receive the adequate health care he or she needed from the government.

For many years, this bill languished in Congress. Now the only other thing needed is President Duterte’s signature and soon this bill will become law. This is what happens when leaders have the political will needed to drive policy. Because of this, we can all look forward to a society that is empowered to prevent, not only the spread of the disease, but also the stigma that comes with it.

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