DOH secretary now
Mr. President, you need to appoint a secretary of health immediately. It’s no exaggeration to say people are dying, but they wouldn’t if there were a health secretary. This decision can no longer be delayed.
Maria Rosario Vergeire did an excellent, professional job of handling COVID in the areas she was responsible for (others in other areas didn’t, at least in the first months). She could make a good choice for secretary. But either she doesn’t want it, or the President is not sure if she’s the one.
If it’s the first, I can understand well. She has a secure, lifetime job that she would have to give up for one that is dependent on the decision of the President. And at best can last five and a half years, then she’s out of a job. Mind you, I’m sure the private sector would snap her up in an instant.
Or it could be the President is torn over who it could be. The tsismis is that he’s being pressured by different voices, and he’s reluctant to choose one over another. Well, making swift but informed decisions is what leadership is all about. If he’s the leader he promised to be, he must bite the bullet and choose one now.
If it’s unpopular with some, or distasteful to others, then that’s the price of leadership.
Vergeire as officer in charge does not have the power to introduce the major reforms the health service demands. She’s holding the fort in transition; it’s not a role that allows for the longer-term changes that must be done, or the strategic policy decisions that must be made. The appointments that must be decided. We need someone to look after the public health of the country.
A very beneficial outcome of the Duterte administration was universal health care. We’re one of the few, more enlightened countries that have introduced it. But it’s in its infancy, and a vast amount of complexity has to be handled. Just one, PhilHealth where there is no CEO, so the much-needed digitalization of its systems, for example, is not happening. It’s the same with the Philippine Heart Center (PHC), National Kidney and Transplant Institute (NKTI), Lung Center of the Philippines, Philippine Children’s Medical Center, Philippine Institute of Traditional and Alternative Health Care, and National Nutrition Council. All need the guidance of a Cabinet-level secretary if they are to expand and modernize their role.
All need a secretary to convince Congress of the funds they need, which currently are not enough. In the proposed 2023 budget, the funds allotted to the PHC and NKTI, among others, were reduced. Absolutely the wrong way to go. Congress did it because, according to the Department of Budget and Management, the government “is in a tight fiscal position,” so they “have to properly allocate the budget to different agencies.” The right kind of health secretary could persuasively argue otherwise. There was an increase in the budget for PhilHealth, but there’s no one in charge to decide how to best spend it. The budget for public hospitals and rural health units needs to be increased; they are ever so poorly equipped now. The pay and benefits of nurses and health care workers who’ve long suffered need high-level arguments for improvement. Congress is considering the 2023 budget today. A Cabinet secretary needs to be in the hall arguing for more money for health—today. As the editorial in this newspaper said yesterday, “mounting health problems … require critical decision-making by a duly appointed department head.”
All the undersecretaries and assistant secretaries are in a holdover capacity. They may keep their job, they may not. Either way, in deference to a new leader, they can’t progress substantive change. They need someone to set the direction. They don’t know what the priorities and directions of a new secretary will be. The Department of Health is in limbo.
Your health dominates everything. If you don’t have enough food, you can still work, still look after the family, still do all the things a well-fed person can do, albeit maybe a little less actively. If you’re sick, you can do nothing except lie in bed or stare out mindlessly from a chair.
Sickness takes over the body. The cost to the economy of illness and preventable deaths is astronomical. In 2020, the country’s total health expenditure reached P1 trillion, 5.6 percent of the GDP in that year. So it should be the most important department in government, with the most competent, most highly experienced leader that can be found. From what we’ve heard, there are such leaders. The President only has to choose which one. Now.
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