The Philippines is a step closer to enacting a Universal Healthcare (UHC) law that will guarantee all Filipinos equitable access to quality medical treatment.
Two versions of the bill, one passed by the Senate and the other by the lower house, will now be merged before President Rodrigo Duterte can sign it into law.
Both versions share the same core feature: Regardless of health condition or economic status, all 103 million Filipinos will be placed under the National Health Insurance Programme, giving them access to basic health services and medical procedures.
While the existing PhilHealth government scheme claims to have achieved 93-per-cent coverage, that means 7 per cent of Filipinos, or about 7 million, are still not covered by health insurance – a number equivalent to the population of Hong Kong.
Worth noting, too, is that a third, or 33 per cent, of the 96 million PhilHealth beneficiaries in 2017 (51 per cent are members and 49 per cent are dependants) were classified as indigents.
The UHC bill will expand PhilHealth’s coverage to include free consultation fees, laboratory tests and diagnostic services. In other words, services such as regular check-ups, X-rays and cancer-risk screenings will be provided free, at no cost to citizens.
By placing healthcare within reach of every Filipino, proponents hope it will change the mindset whereby poorer patients only consult a doctor only when their conditions have become serious or life-threatening.
That is obviously because many can’t afford even the most basic healthcare.
The UHC law will undoubtedly bring relief and succour to the most marginalised Filipinos. However, it also comes with a steep price tag, prompting some quarters to question whether the government has the capability to sustain such an expensive and ambitious undertaking.
The Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines Inc, for one, has raised concerns that this might only worsen PhilHealth’s mounting debts to private hospitals, and could even result in the closure of some of these facilities.
For the first year of its implementation alone, UHC will cost an estimated 60 billion to 80 billion pesos (Bt36 billion-Bt48 billion), on top of the annual budget of the Department of Health (DOH).
The law also needs to address serious and credible allegations of corruption within the health system.
The new programme will be funded by the collection of “sin taxes” and the national government’s share of the income from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp and the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, as well as from private-healthcare contributions.
By next year, the minimum contribution of PhilHealth members is also projected to increase to 300 pesos a month from the current 200 pesos.
This week, the DOH asked President Duterte to certify as urgent a Senate bill that would raise tobacco taxes to 90 pesos from 32.50 pesos per pack, in order to fund the UHC scheme.
The upgraded sin tax, if approved, will generate about 45 billion pesos annually in revenue.
Despite the financial challenges ahead, the UHC bill deserves to be enacted into law as soon as possible.
The 1987 constitution guarantees UHC as a fundamental human right: “The State shall protect and promote the right to health of the people and instil health consciousness among them.”
The United Nations also advocates universal healthcare for all its members by 2030. At present, only 58 out of 195 countries have UHC, excluding even the United States.
Universal healthcare may well end up the defining legacy of Duterte’s administration, one that brings the full weight of state commitment and resources to the fundamental task of caring for the wellbeing of all Filipinos without exception. The country eagerly awaits his signature on the bicameral committee’s final bill.