A foremost health issue

THE SENATE resumed session no less than a week after the polls closed for the May 13, 2019 midterm elections. For our part, we had just endured many months of a fulfilling but nevertheless grueling reelection campaign. It would’ve been nice to take a few more days off at that point, in all honesty. 

However, the resumption of session came with the imperative for the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, which I chair, to report out, sponsor, interpellate, amend and ultimately pass a proposed measure to raise excise taxes on tobacco products.

Thankfully, in a span of just three weeks, Congress was able to fast-track the measure’s passage. We would not have been able to achieve what we did without the help of our colleagues and staff, as well as the contributions of the various government agencies, stakeholder groups and people’s organizations.

Ultimately, Congress moved quickly because President Duterte certified the measure as urgent. More importantly, funding needed to be secured for the implementation of the Universal Healthcare (UHC) Act, which we co-authored and was enacted a few months before. The extra revenues from the higher excise taxes were identified as the main source. 

Once the measure is signed into law, excise taxes on cigarettes will be raised to P45 per pack in 2020 until it reaches P60 in 2023.  Afterwards, the rates will be indexed — or raised — by five percent every year.

The measure also expanded the scope of the excise to include heated tobacco products or HTPs (known by different names depending on the brand) and vapor products (colloquially referred to as “vape juice”). Starting January 1, 2020, HTPs will be taxed P10 per pack of 20 units, while vape juice will be levied P10 for 10 milliliters.

Based on the projections of the Department of Finance (DOF), the new excise taxes could raise up to P130 billion in incremental revenues in the first five years of implementation.  Such amount will greatly aid the government’s efforts to achieve true universal healthcare coverage envisioned not just in the recently enacted UHC Act (RA 112233), but also by my father, the late Senate President Edgardo J. Angara, when he authored the National Health Insurance Program Act (RA 7875) which created PhilHealth.

All these explain why it felt like a real blow in the gut when an investigative report broke out tackling allegations of fraud and corruption perpetrated by some hospitals, health centers and PhilHealth.  The report centered around a dialysis clinic in Novaliches, Quezon City allegedly making fraudulent claims to PhilHealth for deceased patients or for patients who did not complete their weekly dialysis sessions.

Apparently such a scam was not limited to this Quezon City clinic, however.  In fact, several PhilHealth officials revealed that the national health insurance corporation has been defrauded up to P154 billion since 2013.  This staggering amount was lost through instances not just of fraud, but also of overpayment or upcasing — such as when a healthcare provider makes a claim to PhilHealth for pneumonia when in fact it only treated a patient’s cough.

Any sort of corruption in the public service should be condemned.  But the corruption being alleged here is particularly deplorable, because public funds that have been allocated to treat very sick and very poor Filipinos are instead being siphoned off to private pockets. Clearly in this case, corruption kills.  Such actions are not only highly criminal; they are also highly immoral. 

We understand that institutional reforms are in the offing so that such scams will never happen again in PhilHealth. Cases have likewise been filed. Still, Congress should exercise its oversight function and look deeper. Perhaps PhilHealth as an insurance corporation, needs fewer doctors and more managers and fraud investigators. This is definitely a foremost health issue the 18th Congress, once convened, should investigate and resolve decisively.

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Sen. Sonny Angara has been in public service for 15 years — nine years as Representative of the Lone District of Aurora, and six as senator. He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws.  He recently won another term in the Senate. (Email: [email protected] | Facebook, Twitter & Instagram: @sonnyangara/PN)

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