BULATLAT SPECIAL REPORT:
“The issue of privatization in health entered the national consciousness, and became part of national discourse.”
By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA — The year 2015 saw the intensification of the health sector’s struggle, from the health workers’ rights and welfare to people’s right to free health services.
Their steadfastness certainly produced results. The health groups and advocates, together with the mass movement, gained initial victories after persistent lunch break pickets and big protests, in hospitals, at the Department of Health (DOH), to the gates near Malacañang Palace.
They exposed the deprivation of health services to the poor and privatization of government hospitals under President Aquino’s “daang matuwid” (righteous path), through their untiring protests that even the corporate media could not take for granted. Big media networks reported the neglect and dire condition of public hospitals, such as the Philippine Orthopedic Center (POC), which serves poor patients, and its impending “modernization” in the hands of private investors.
“The issue of privatization in health entered the national consciousness, and became part of national discourse,” said National Orthopedic Hospital Workers Union-Alliance of Health Workers (NOHWU-AHW) president, Sean Herbert Velchez. Different groups, such as the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, engaged in the issue and made a stand against privatization.
Velchez attributed all these to the collective action of the people.
Victories in 2015
Early into the year, in February, the Philippine Children’s Medical Center finally secured the title of the land occupied by the hospital.
Different groups, led by the hospital employees and the management, intensified the campaign, called #SavePCMC, after the National Housing Authority issued a notice to buy the land and evict the hospital from where it stood for the last 34 years.
The Gabriela Women’s Party also led activities protesting the PCMC eviction, its effects on ill children and threats of privatization.
Another victory came in August, when the Supreme Court nullified two joint circulars – that of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and Department of Health, and that of the DBM and Civil Service Commission.
The circulars reduce the hazard pay and other allowances and legally-mandated benefits of public health workers. The Philippine Public Health Association Inc. (PPHAI) filed the petition against the 2012 joint circulars.
In November, the Megawide-World Citi consortium terminated the Built-Operate-Transfer contract for the POC modernization project, proving again how persistent united efforts bear fruit.
The POC modernization project was supposed to be the first health project under President Aquino’s Public-Private Partnership program.
Velchez said the key to their success is not only their determination to fight but the collective action of the people. They were not sure of winning, but the only way to find out was to wage the battle, he said.
“We really did not know if we had a chance. It is the government that we are up against. It has all the resources and is hell-bent in pursuing privatization projects. Naging labanan na lang ito ng tama at mali ( But it became a battle of right versus wrong),” Velchez told Bulatlat.com in an interview.
Protests are essential
The victories attained by the health workers did not come easy. They had to be creative to get the support of other groups so that their campaign would be not be easily ignored by the government.
In the PCMC, doctors, nurses and employees danced to the beat of Michael Jackson’s “They don’t care about us,” in protest against the threat of eviction and the government’s lack of political will to donate the land to the hospital.
The #SavePCMC alliance was also formed by children’s rights group Akap Bata together with the Samahan ng Kawani ng PCMC in 2014.
The Women vs Privatization led by the Gabriela Women’s Party also campaigned for the PCMC. They held street rallies and a series of Black Friday mobilizations in the PCMC.
Velchez also said the health groups and advocates timely staged pickets and educational discussions. He said they knew they needed to gear up after Aquino highlighted plans for Public-Private Partnership (PPP) projects in his first State of the Nation Address in 2010.
In 2012, then Health Secretary Enrique Ona announced that the POC will be the first among the list of health projects under the PPP, the POC union immediately drafted a plan of action with the help of the Alliance of Health Workers (AHW) and Network Opposed to Privatization of Public Hospitals.
The union did not waste time, and discussed among their ranks the effects of PPP to the workers and the patients. They held rallies together with other sectoral groups. They stormed the venue where the bidding for the POC modernization project was held.
Velchez said they hounded the meetings of the technical working group. “Wherever they went, we were there to protest. We blocked their way (members of the technical working group) so some of them were forced to walk to the meeting, or just held their meeting some other place,” Velchez said.
They protested at the POC and at the PPP Center, both in Quezon City, at the Megawide office after it was awarded the project, at the DOH central office in Manila, and at Chino Roces Bridge (former Mendiola bridge) near Malacañang.
Velchez said they eventually found out that they were making an impact: “In one meeting we had with Ona in 2013, he asked us, frustratingly, ‘What is really the problem? Do you know that because of your protests, the implementation of the project was getting delayed?’ So we thought, ‘A, then our action is indeed effective.”
He said they learned from government insiders that every time a protest got TV coverage, Malacañang turned to Ona. “He couldn’t do anything, until he was replaced as Health Secretary.”
Velchez said they consider Ona’s removal from his post also as an initial victory. “Even before Megawide terminated the contract, we have this victory. Malacañang could no longer keep him because plans were not materializing. And we credit it to our collective action,” he said.
Education and organizing co-employees and patients
They were in high spirits after Megawide terminated the BOT contract, but joy came after tough times.
Velchez admitted that it was not easy at the onset of their campaign. Only a few employees of the POC joined lunch break protests. Nurses and doctors stayed away. Some employees were also scared.
He said most of the employees who are of retirement age were ready to lose their jobs due to the POC modernization project. But Velchez said they challenged them to do something significant, not only for themselves, but for other employees, the patients and future generation.
They never gave up and continued in organizing and educating their co-health workers and employees.
“The health sector is one of the apathetic sectors in society. They only care about their career growth and never care about the people and the future they are going to face if privatization of the POC pushes through,” Velchez explained.
The union, with the help of the Alliance of Health Workers (AHW) armed the employees with education. Robert Mendoza, AHW president said they launched a series of forums in different public hospitals and other venues.
“We invited resource speakers and employees from other hospitals in similar condition as POC. We let other sectors share their situation in these forums. We also discussed national issues and the root cause why these things are happening in the Philippines, so that they will understand the whole picture,” Mendoza told Bulatlat.com.
Mendoza said recent history attests to how the concerted efforts of health workers had won against threats of privatization and the people’s right to health. His group, AHW, was founded in 1984 after health workers united and fought against the abolition of Quezon Institute, a hospital specializing in tuberculosis. It was led by AHW’s first president, the late Mindaluz Quesada
The planned sale of the land where the National Center for Mental Health is currently located was also successfully opposed by the AHW since the regime of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos up to the administration of Aquino.
Now, they continue to resist the POC privatization, presented in the guise of modernization.
Mendoza said through education, employees became enlightened and began to act on their own.
Because of the campaign, union membership increased, Velchez said. The usually apathetic employees, and health professionals were politicized and acted to fight privatization.
“Because we engaged them in the right to health issue, our membership tripled. Nurses who don’t usually join protests went to die-ins in the streets,” Velchez said.
They also organized patients and their relatives. He said the union tried to avoid making the issue of privatization homogenous. “It was an issue both of the health workers and the people as patients.”
He said it was not difficult to convince the patients, who will suffer the burden once privatization pushes through. “When we tell them that the hospital will be privatized, their immediate reaction was anger. ‘Paano naman kami? (What will happen to us)’ They knew they will be directly affected,” Velchez said.
He said people know it is difficult to be poor and sick in the Philippines. The mere thought that the remaining public hospitals in the country will be privatized, which will result in expensive fees for medical procedures and services, would be a nightmare for poor Filipinos, he said.
“That’s a reaction of people who experienced two-tiered health system, one for the rich and another for the poor. The people knew that the health system in the Philippines is being run like a business. They see that to further commodify health service is a brazen attack on this very crucial right, which is right to health and right to live.”
“That is why we think the people embraced the call, that the struggle was just and right. They knew that the government should fund infrastructures for the people’s health,” he added.
The employees who joined the protests were not spared from harassment of the management. Velchez said the previous administration before present POC Medical Center Chief II Dr. Jose Brittanio S. Pujalte, Jr., oppressed them by not giving the union their funds for two years. Their bulletin boards were dismantled and union members were deprived of their time to join activities using their official time. But their steadfastness did not waver.
The noise that the campaign had created has gained support from different organizations in the country. When Pujalte became hospital director, he supported their call and stood with the employees against privatizing the hospital. A coalition against privatization of POC was also formed that led to their filing of petition for certiorari in the Supreme Court.
They also gained support from the CBCP, the Philippine Nurses Association and former Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral, to name a few. Support also came from the international community. Members of trade unions from Holland and Belgium came to the country, and wrote a statement on the issue of POC privatization which, Velchez said, was sent to Aquino.
Support even came from the top, from no less than Health Secretary Janette Garin. Health groups picketed the DOH office after her appointment, and Garin held a dialogue with them. Velchez said Garin pledged to stop the privatization of POC. She told them she has removed funds and closed down PPP offices set up by Ona in different government hospitals, and removed the consultants assigned by Ona.
“That is all on record, so we hold her accountable for that,” Velchez said.
Most of all, he said, the Makabayan bloc in Congress was also a big help in their campaign as they too carried privatization issues. In 2014, Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares filed a resolution to investigate the impending privatization of POC.
Velchez also said the national democratic movement also helped them in their campaign. “They provided us political analysis that goes beyond hospital privatization, and social analysis why these things happen,” Velchez said.
The movement also mobilized their own communities who eventually will be affected by privatization, said Velchez.
But the fight is not yet over, he said. One of the PPP projects is the Trimedical Center Complex, which intends to integrate three government hospitals: the Jose Reyes Medical Memorial Center, the Fabella Hospital and San Lazaro Hospital.
He added that POC’s condition is still not improved. “We still use post-World War II equipment, the patients still pay for their hospitalization and the comfort rooms are stinking. We want this to change, but the government should fund it and it should remain a publicly-run hospital.”
After this victory, Velchez said they are raising their call for social change, so that threats of privatization will all diminish. “As long as there are national leaders that serve the interest of businessmen, big foreign companies and banks, the threat of privatization will remain. We will only attain genuine change if the Filipino people will be liberated from these policies,” Velchez said.