By VENMAR CECILLE
MANILA – “The pandemic is still not over.”
Cristy Dongeuines, president of Jose Reyes Memorial Medical Center Employees Union-Alliance of Health Workers (JRMMCEU-AHW), stressed this point as they joined last Monday’s protest action in time for the second State of the Nation Address of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
On July 21, Marcos Jr. issued Proclamation No. 297 stating that all prior orders, memoranda, and issuances on the state of public health emergency “shall no longer be in effect.”
“People, especially those with comorbidities, are still vulnerable to COVID-19. The government should still guarantee protection for the people and especially the health workers,” she told Bulatlat.
Supposed benefits and a livable wage
Dongeuines is a nurse supervisor at the Jose Reyes Memorial Medical Center (JRMMC). She found it dreadful to hear of the lifting of the COVID-19 health emergency since many of her fellow health workers have not yet received COVID-19 mandated benefits. “Majority of our health workers have not received their health emergency allowances (HEA) and other benefits. Their allowances continue to decrease because over the course of their work, they are frequently stricken by the COVID-19 symptoms, which prompt them to undergo self-quarantine.”
In a report from the Private Hospital Unions of the Philippines, almost P2 billion ($36.62 million) of funds allocated to COVID-19 allowances and other benefits have not been distributed to 20,304 health workers since October 2021.
She added that, along with the benefits, the government should focus on providing a livable wage for health workers. “Entry-level nurses should receive a P33,000 ($604) starting salary across the board, to [provide for the needs] of their families and the risk they encounter since the advent of the pandemic.”
Dehumanizing wages have also pushed nurses to go abroad, resulting in a shortage. According to the Department of Health (DOH), more than 316,000 Filipino nurses migrated to other countries in 2021.
Underpaid, understaffed, overworked
Dongeuines said that at JRMMC, health workers are underpaid and the hospital is understaffed, forcing them to be overworked just to stabilize the hospital workforce.
“Due to the lack of [human resources], we have to extend our duty hours to 16 hours which is very exhausting for all the health workers in our hospital. Majority of us are sick and even have no time for our families,” she said.
Dongeuines added that they do not get any compensation for overtime work. To resolve the understaffing, she urged the government to hire more nurses with plantilla positions to ensure security of tenure.
Job Order positions for nurses (or even contractual workers in general) need to renew once the contracts expire. Dongeuines said that “contractual workers do not have government benefits and social protection since [they do not have] job security.”
In her 20 years of service as a nurse, she saw how contractual workers continue to suffer from additional costs and expenses with the possibility of contract termination.
Imminent mass layoffs
Meanwhile, Romeo Bernardo Garcia who is working for the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) for more than 40 years decried the impending mass layoffs due to the imminent abolition of RITM.
Marcos Jr. vowed to prioritize the creation of the Philippine Center for Disease Prevention and Control (PCDC), which is envisioned to “lead in addressing public health emergencies such as the recent pandemic.”
However, Garcia said that PCDC’s creation would mean displacement of health workers in agencies within the Department of Health (DOH).
RITM, Epidemiology Bureau, STD-AIDS Cooperative Central Laboratory, and Passive International Health Surveillance and Development of Communication Methods will be placed under the PCDC.
“House Bill No. 6522 and Senate Bill No. 1869 state that RITM workers would need to apply for positions in the PCDC. This means that the status of employment of our workers will be uncertain,” Garcia said.
The said bills are said to be Marcos Jr.’s priority agenda.
According to Garcia, RITM’s imminent abolition would also affect public health services. “We are specialized in treating infectious diseases. We treat patients with HIV, for animal bites, and we also produce anti-venom. The PCDC will focus on health policy-making which is far from our current line of work.”
Over 1,000 employees from entry-level to high-level positions are estimated to be affected in this situation.
“The PCDC is envisioned to solve problems in the health sector, especially the vulnerability to pandemics. But that is not the case. Agencies like RITM and the Epidemiology Bureau fell short because of the lack of budget to improve their services and follow their mandate. There is a problem in the system already,” Garcia said.
Garcia stressed that they would support the establishment of PCDC provided that health agencies like RITM are not dissolved.
True state of the health
Health workers and union leaders Dongeuines and Garcia said that Marcos Jr. has no concrete plans for the health sector. He also failed to accomplish his promises for the health workers and the Filipino people.
This July 24, the Health Alliance for Democracy (HEAD) gave Marcos Jr. a failing grade. According to them, he did not succeed in improving the “people’s health and health workers’ plight.”
Among the critical points raised by HEAD is the implementation of health budget cuts. In the case of the Philippine General Hospital (PGH), its budget was cut by P893.6 million, from P6.306 billion ($115.45 million) in 2022 to P5.412 billion ($99.1 million) in 2023.
In addition, Marcos Jr. appointed officials allegedly involved in scandals and corruption. Among them were Retired Police Gen. Camilo Cascolan as DOH Undersecretary, known for authoring Oplan Tokhang; former Power Sector Assets and Liabilities Management Corporation (PSALM) President and CEO Emmanuel Rufino Ledesma Jr. as PhilHealth Acting President, known for a number of alleged graft cases; and Dr. Teodoro J. Herbosa as DOH Secretary, known for being pro-privatization and in red-tagging students and health workers.
“The Marcos Jr. regime enabled further corruption: no prosecution for those involved in the Pharmally graft and corruption case, while graft-ridden PhilHealth will be placed under the Office of the President,” HEAD said in a statement.
According to HEAD, Marcos Jr. also did not prioritize the Free Comprehensive Health Care Bill. Instead, he pushed for controversial measures like the establishment of PCDC.
“We will continue to demand for food, wages, social services and free health services, subsidies, and benefits, rights and good governance, as we continue the fight for better health in a better, more humane and just society,” HEAD stressed. (JJE, RTS)