By RAQUEL ALVAREZ
MANILA — A group of community medicine advocates is reiterating their calls for the passing of a law that will address the fragmented public health system in the country as the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to soar.
“We need to strengthen our public health system. We can do this through the implementation of a free, comprehensive, and progressive public health system in the country,” said Magdalena Barcelon, president of the Community of Medicine Practitioners and Advocates Association (Compass), in a webinar on January 12, 2022.
Among President Rodrigo Duterte’s election promises is to prioritize health. Still, the decades-old deteriorating conditions of the public health system, which, according to experts, stem from its devolution of the management of health facilities to local government units, remain.
Health workers said this may be addressed if House Bill 9515 or the Free National Public Health System Act will be passed. The proposed law was filed last year by progressive lawmakers belonging to the Makabayan bloc at the height of the then very new raging pandemic.
This, however, was not certified as urgent by the president in his last two State of the Nation Address. The house bill remains on the house committee level.
“We are asking the support of other sectors to push for the passing of this proposed law. The continuing privatization of health services will never be an answer to addressing the pandemic,” said Barcelon in a statement.
What is inside the proposed law?
Proponents of the said legislation said the COVID-19 has “revealed the gaping and grave weaknesses of a fragmented system, with many people, the poor mostly, struggling to avail even the most basic of health services.”
The bill is pushing to reorient and reorganize the country’s public health system at all levels and formulate and implement a comprehensive national plan for health workers’ development.
It also seeks to alleviate the increasing out-of-pocket expenses of Filipinos, particularly poor patients, as it seeks to provide them with transportation, food, and accommodation to the health facility while undergoing treatment.
The proposed law will also seek to provide free medicines in public hospitals and health facilities, provision of equal and timely access to health education, basic preventive curative, rehabilitative palliative health services, strengthening of community-based primary care, and other free services such as oral and dental health care, reproductive health care, school-based health services, to name a few.
It proposes the renationalization of government-owned and controlled corporations, hospitals and health facilities. The primary and overriding goal of reverting these institutions to the direct control of the government under the health department is to provide “free health services to the public as part of publicly funded social services.”
The WHO recommendation of a doctor-to-patient ratio of 1:1,000 is far from the country’s reality of 1:33,000 from local health stations of community health services.
The bill calls for necessary financing of the health department. It also pushes for the abolition of the controversial Philhealth, transferring its assets, infrastructure, personnel, and budget to the health department.
“A true universal health care must be free for all Filipinos guaranteed by the State and without the need for national health insurance, such as the PhilHealth, in any form,” the explanatory note read.
Still no mass testing, still no contact tracing
Instead of addressing public health care amid soaring cases of COVID-19, the Philippine government is currently shifting its pandemic response by veering away from detecting and tracing cases to other “impactful” activities such as monitoring of cases and isolation.
This has been met with criticisms by public health advocates, saying that testing remains vital in fighting the pandemic.
Independent research group Ibon Foundation said that P1.1 trillion ($2.4 billion) of the P2.8 trillion ($54.6 billion) worth of foreign loans as of 2021 were supposedly allotted for COVID-19 response. This, the group added, may be used to support free mass testing and efficient contact tracing.
As of September 2021, the Department of Budget and Management published a report stating that only P57 billion ($1.1 billion) COVID-19 funds have been disbursed. This is amid a 14-percent budget cut for the health department in 2021.
“We are now running out of medicines because the people are opting to address the symptoms of COVID-19 on their own, rather than to test positive to the dreaded virus and stop working. The people do not feel that they can push for their rights in the middle of a pandemic. They do not feel that there is a public health system that has their back as the pandemic continues to worsen,” said Joshua San Pedro of the Coalition for People’s Right to Health. (JJE, RVO)