Literally still the sick man in Asia

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By Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, LL.M

Ask any Filipino-Australian what he loves about being here in the Land Down Under and I guarantee one of the top three answers would be the modern and hassle-free health services delivered by the state.

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Australia’s health care system

Unfortunately, we all know that Filipinos back home do not enjoy this particular public service. In fact, the Philippine public health system does not offer any relief at all for the people. Its latest casualty is a 45-year old construction worker from Echague, Isabela who committed suicide after seeing his hospital bill amounted to Php180K.

The horrible reality is public hospitals and local health clinics in the Philippines remain substandard. The principal reason for this is that delivery of health services by government is effectively dependent on the whims and caprices of politicians in power. The quality of patient care in public health institutions is highly contingent on the good graces of mayors, governors, congressmen and senators. Of course the most depressing outcome resulting from this scenario is the emblazoned names and faces of politicos we always see in state-run hospitals and ambulances.

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Philippines’ health care system

Further weakening the health care system is the fact that providing for the health and well-being of the people has essentially been hi-jacked from the state by private health providers. Health care in the Philippines has become a virtual monopoly of the business sector. Hence, for Filipinos the advice to invest in one’s health assumes a very literal meaning. And generally, the failure to do so can lead to dire circumstances.

For a more formal assessment of the Philippine public health care system I defer to “The Philippines Health System Review” published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2011─

“Despite some successes and important progress in some areas, the Philippines’ health sector remains marred by problems of inequity, even after successive waves of reform, from primary health care decentralization to the more recent health sector reform agenda. An independent and dominant private health sector, the disconnect between national and local authorities in health systems management, and the absence of an integrated curative and preventive network together have had a negative impact on economic and geographic access, quality and efficiency of health services.”

The Philippine population now stands at a little over 100 million. Therefore, it is only natural for Filipino voters to expect candidates in the coming election to put a premium on health care reform.

I suppose it is also logical to count on the five Presidentiables to carry this advocacy with passion and urgency. The Inquirer’s “ThINQ. Vote.” advocacy outlined the five candidates’ respective health care agenda. The observation that really jumps out of the page is the lack of coherence in their proposals. It seems that all of the 5 can only offer a veritable laundry list for health care reform. Not one presented a comprehensive and viable action plan.

This failure is absolutely inexcusable considering much of the groundwork for identifying the necessary health reforms has been accomplished in the WHO document. All they need to do is synthesize the findings in this review and present to the Filipino electorate a realistic and doable strategy to establish a world-class health care system in the country.

However, while we can implore the president to champion the cause for massive health reform in the Philippines, the task of creating the comprehensive health care framework itself ultimately belongs to the legislature. Meaning, this is a job for our senators and congressmen.

Let me be clear however, I am not suggesting we give presidential candidates a free pass when it comes to health reform. This is a national concern after all. But we should also be seeking a clear and viable legislative health reform agenda from senatorial and congressional aspirants. Indeed, we also need to hear from these candidates a firm and unequivocal commitment to pursue the necessary reforms once elected to Congress.

Filipino voters have to keep in mind that the primordial duty of lawmakers is to enact laws addressing contingencies which compromise the health and well-being of the Philippine population. First and foremost, they must be reliable problem solvers.

Therefore, we should also be asking ourselves, will the likes of Manny Pacquiao, Alma Moreno, and Tito Sotto be able to fulfill this mandate? Will senatorial candidates of their caliber have the wherewithal to devise a world-class public health care framework?

As overseas voters, I believe we have to recognize the grave fact that for many Filipinos back home this question has become literally a matter of life or death.

Michael Yusingco is a Filipino lawyer based in Melbourne with a Masters degree in Law and Development from the University of Melbourne Law School.

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