Behind the Sona
You don’t usually associate the State of the Nation Address with information on open-heart surgery, or on a new expressway that will connect the NLEx and SLEx, but that is what our Sona does.
Unfortunately, the Sona has become a ritual where the president is expected to rattle off his/her administration’s accomplishments. The longer the Sona—and this year’s went on for almost two hours—the more accomplishments are presumed.
I worry, though, that this ritualized nature of the Sona means we end up being bombarded with too many facts and figures that mean little, and may actually backfire because people lose sight of the substance of the progress that has been made, as well as the areas where the nation continues to face challenges.
Each year’s Sona has been posted on gov.ph and is worth reading for those who want to be able to digest the speech. But even more important is the Sona Technical Report that provides more details about the speech. Just to show the extent of the detail involved, this year’s Sona Technical Report runs to 96 pages.
Reading through the report, I realized that there is a serious information gap between what government—and I mean here not just the president and the executive branch but also the legislature and the judiciary—has done, and what people are aware of. Let me give a few concrete examples from the Sona Technical Report to highlight this gap.
For example, because I work in the area of health, I tend to follow developments in this area. In the last few years, we’ve seen how the issue of reproductive health has whipped up many storms in all branches of the government, something which the mass media have enjoyed because they allow sensational coverage of the debacles.
Are you aware of PhilHealth’s Z Benefits packages? I first heard about the packages in last year’s Sona, and was able to get details in the technical report rather than in the media. These packages are not trivial. The Z Benefits packages were launched in July 2012 (and therefore mentioned in last year’s Sona), with an expansion of benefits in February 2013, but only 164 patients have benefited so far.
These are not small-time benefits; these subsidize expenses for particular medical procedures in designated hospitals. For standard risk coronary artery bypass, patients can reimburse up to P550,000. For correction of a congenital heart condition called Tetralogy of Fallot, benefits can go up to P320,000. Correcting ventricular septal defects (usually a hole in the wall dividing the heart into the left and the right), maximum benefits are P250,000. And for linear accelerated chemotherapy for cervical cancer patients, you can claim up to P175,000.
The Philippine Heart Center is the usual designated hospital for the cardiovascular procedures, but for a coronary artery bypass, you can also go to the Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center in Cebu and the Southern Philippines Medical Center in Davao. For the cervical cancer chemotherapy, the hospitals are the Jose Reyes Memorial Medical Center, Philippine General Hospital, VCMMC in Cebu and Davao Regional Hospital. I learned all that from the Sona Technical Report.
Those benefit packages are substantial, and life-saving. I have heard so many heartbreaking stories of parents going off to work overseas to raise money for a child’s congenital heart condition, the delay sometimes proving to be fatal. The Z Benefits packages can make a difference… if people know about them.
It was from the Sona Technical Report that I learned about new compensation packages that began in April 2013 through Executive Orders 134 and 135, to align benefits for the Government Service Insurance System with those of the Social Security System. Now, I didn’t even know SSS subsidizes caregivers’ salaries up to P575 per month, now extended to GSIS beneficiaries as well. Funeral benefits are P10,000 now for both SSS and GSIS, and there is even a provision to cover P100 for first visits to a general practitioner and P150 for specialists. The subsidies are P80 for succeeding visits to the GP and P100 for the specialists. I know, cynics will say it’s difficult processing the papers, but when money is tight, every centavo counts… again, only if you even know about your entitlements.
Flood control, transport
Let’s move from health to transport. The President announced that MRT/LRT fare hikes are inevitable, and gave statistics on how much the government is subsidizing. No matter what the figures are, I’m afraid protests will escalate against these hikes, and the other developments around transport will be lost in the fire and fury of these protests. For example, the President says that by the end of 2013 we should see the completion of three integrated transport terminals, with more than 8,000 provincial buses to be based in these terminals, supposedly to decongest Metro Manila. I would have appreciated more information on where these terminals will be. On the downside, while the terminals are expected to be completed this year, they will not be fully operational until January 2016, and it would have been good to know why it will take so long from completion to functionality.
All kinds of infrastructure projects are listed in the technical report, many around flood control. It was in the discussion about flood control projects where I learned we have 1.5 million informal-settler families—take note, that’s families—with more than 580,000 in Metro Manila alone. A fifth of those families in Metro Manila are in danger areas like waterways and railroad tracks.
The report’s annex has the most infrastructure project descriptions, including a connection between NLEx and SLEx that will allow you to travel from Clark in Pampanga to Calamba in Laguna in 15-20 minutes. No target date of completion was given.
Let me give one last example of something I learned from the Sona Technical Report: Did you know we are the fifth largest global shipbuilder in the world, after China, Korea, Japan and Brazil, with our ship exports growing from $659 million in 2011 to $1.08 billion in 2012? I have written several columns about the importance of expanding our manufacturing sector, and was not aware that we had a shipbuilding manufacturing industry that employs 45,000 workers.
As a social scientist, I am not surprised that we have that shipbuilding industry. Historical records show that when the Spaniards colonized us, they recognized the shipbuilding skills of the indios (natives) and tapped them.
I hope journalists will tap the Sona Technical Report for more information that is worth disseminating to the public. For all the griping we do about the government, there are many benefits that are oriented toward the poor, if they only know what is available. And there’s more: Businesses with forward-looking visions will find information on potential niches for investors. The 2013 report mentions, for example, how we are now exporting special varieties of rice. These are specialized markets, but they are high in value, responding to growing demands in more affluent countries.
There’s much more in the technical report, so read the downloadable reports on gov.ph.