JUST this year, we met a man from Iligan City, Lanao del Norte who had been complaining for months about a wound on his foot that wouldn’t heal.
The man suspected he had diabetes, though he couldn’t confirm it — much less treat it — since he and his family relied solely on the earnings of their small carinderia. Instead of spending their hard-earned cash on a check-up, he preferred to give it as allowance to his children for school.
Unfortunately, this story is not uncommon throughout the country. We have what experts call poor health-seeking behavior, which explains the often cited statistic that six out of 10 Filipinos die without seeing a health professional. Often, Filipinos consult doctors only when their illnesses are at their worst. They put off seeking medical help out of fear that the cost might be too high.
According to 2014 Department of Health (DOH) data, more than half (54 percent) of the country’s health expenditures were out-of-pocket (OOP) — higher than other ASEAN countries such as Vietnam or Indonesia. Interestingly, when former senator Freddie Webb sponsored in 1994 the bill which eventually became the PhilHealth Law, he also noted that household spending accounted for 54 percent of the country’s estimated P20.4 billion health care expenditures in 1991.
In two decades, the OOP expenses of Filipinos remain virtually unchanged. Families still carry most of the financial brunt of medical care, which explains their aversion to seeing a doctor for a simple check-up.
That is why much anticipation rests on the Universal Healthcare Coverage (UHC) bill which we co-sponsored in the Senate. With this measure, we will be able to institute much-needed reforms in PhilHealth, expand its coverage even further, and most importantly, improve the menu of services and benefits available to all Filipino families. The more critical reform introduced is the provision of free, accessible, and comprehensive check-ups and laboratory tests to all.
Currently, PhilHealth offers a Primary Care Benefit Package 1 (PCB1), more widely known as the TSeKaP (Tamang Serbisyo Para sa Kalusugan ng Pamilya) program, where indigents, sponsored members and OFWs can avail themselves of free examinations and lab tests, including complete blood count (cbc), urinalysis, lipid profile, and chest x-ray among others. With the UHC measure, such services will be available to all Filipinos.
The old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” should ring true throughout our health system. Studies have shown that access to preventive and promotive interventions broadens the opportunity for Filipinos in danger of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes to shift to a healthier lifestyle. That’s why we strongly pushed for the inclusion of free check-ups, lab tests and other preventive and promotive interventions in the UHC measure.
I am reminded of my late father, former Senate President Edgardo J. Angara, who authored the first PhilHealth law (RA 7875). To quote his message to the Philippine Medical Association in 1990: “Many [doctors] have had a rather strong curative orientation formed way back in medical school. There’s nothing wrong about it. It is what medicine is partially about. [However], the other part of medicine is also about preventing disease and promoting good health. Individually and collectively. This means bridging the gap between [the] medical knowledge and its day-to-day application in other people’s lives. In other words, it is showing people what they can do about their own health and well-being. It is teaching them how to make their own choices — very crucial decisions that can save lives.”
As the debates on the UHC bill ensue, we remain hopeful that we will live up to the wisdom and spirit behind the original PhilHealth law, of giving Filipinos not just access to the full spectrum of health services, but also the opportunity and support to live healthier lives for themselves and their families.
Sen. Sonny Angara was the representative of Aurora Province for nine years before he was elected senator in 2013. He is now the chairman of the Senate committees on local government, and ways and means. (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org| Facebook, Twitter & Instagram: @sonnyangara)/PN