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Editorial

Reprieve for OFWs

/ 05:00 AM May 08, 2020

Waves of righteous indignation from most of the country’s 10 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) forced President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday to make voluntary their compliance with the increased premium rate being collected by the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth).

A party list group had described the increase as “untimely” and “insensitive,” given the forced repatriation of many OFWs at this time because of the global economic downturn brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The increase, mandated in Chapter 3, Section 10 of the Universal Health Care (UHC) law signed last year by Mr. Duterte, would have required OFWs earning P10,000 to P60,000 a month to pay PhilHealth 3 percent of their monthly income in premiums, from the 2.75 percent that the state health insurance provider used to collect last year.

The uproar was such that PhilHealth president Ricardo Morales was compelled to impose a moratorium on all collections, conceding that the COVID-19 pandemic has left workers, including most OFWs, out of a job.

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He also denied that PhilHealth would bar OFWs from leaving the country if they failed to settle their premiums first, contradicting earlier statements by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, and once again highlighting the lack of cohesive and adequate communication on the matter.

Some 3.6 million out of approximately 10 million OFWs are PhilHealth members; last year, they paid about P1 billion in premiums.

According to Morales, this was lower than the P1.7 billion in benefit claims that PhilHealth had paid out to the group and their dependents.

The reprieve for OFWs was certainly the right step to take, because burdening them even more at this time would be sheer callousness.

“Many OFWs did not receive the already meager financial assistance of $200 (P10,000) promised by this government (because) there were simply too many exclusionary provisions,” noted the women’s organization Gabriela, referring to the P5,000 to P8,000 cash assistance given by the social welfare department to qualified marginalized families to cushion the economic impact of the Luzon-wide lockdown.

“OFW families are often denied financial assistance by the government simply because they have a relative working abroad.”

Another rights group, Migrante International, said it would not settle for the mere suspension of PhilHealth contributions, but would push for the complete scrapping of “this unjust and extortionate law.”

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An online petition against the premium rate hike has so far gathered 419,519 signatures out of its 500,000 target.

The resistance against PhilHealth’s attempt to siphon more money from premium contributions is also understandable given its spotty record in financial accountability.

Last year, the agency was rocked by allegations of fraudulent claims, notably by a dialysis center that had managed to collect millions in spurious medical procedures on nonexistent or dead patients.

In 2018, PhilHealth president Celestina Ma. Jude de la Serna came under fire for her alleged lavish lifestyle despite the agency’s net loss of P4.5 billion, according to its adjusted 2017 financial statement.

That same year, the House of Representatives filed a resolution to probe, among other irregularities, the “proliferation of fraud through the creation of ghost members of PhilHealth.”

Such lack of diligence in managing its fiscal affairs may also help explain PhilHealth’s inability to fulfill its obligation to subsidize quality health care in a timely manner, especially in terms of its arrangements with private hospitals.

Morales admitted on Monday that PhilHealth owes about 5,000 clinics, hospitals, and other health facilities across the country some P7 billion—a shabby state of affairs earlier confirmed by Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines Inc. president Rustico Jimenez.

Part of the delay, other than incomplete requirements for hospital claims, is antiquated bureaucracy. “Morales said Philhealth is trying to adapt to a computerized mode of transaction with hospitals to avoid fraud and faster release of payment,” reported CNN Philippines.

Settling its obligations promptly is an urgent matter that PhilHealth must attend to, if only to help stabilize the hospital situation already perilously stretched thin by the pandemic.

This matter deserves as much public hue and cry as the hiked premium payments, now suspended because—contrary to the constant refrain by administration partisans (many of them OFWs, ironically) to dissenters and vigilant citizens to shut up and “sumunod ka na lang (just obey the government)”—people took the time to complain and speak up, and thus obtained the change necessary at this time.

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TAGS: coronavirus disease, coronavirus philippines, covid-19 philippines, health crisis, OFW, pandemic, Quarantine
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