Why the PhilHealth scandal hurts

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    ‘You see, in my book, stupidity you can forgive. But stealing peoples’ money meant for healthcare and discovering this during the time of a pandemic? That’s beyond criminal.’

    THE President is right: we, like all other nations including China, were not prepared for the onset of the novel coronavirus. That’s why, like all other nations, we were caught, so to speak, with our pants down.

    But that’s only one part of the saga. There is another part, and that is how quickly nations acted to pull their pants up. Some nations acted more quickly than others. Some nations were more thorough as well; we in the Philippines (or at least it seems to me) took our own sweet time to pull up our pants – oh, and we even forgot to zip up.

    That’s why COVID-19 has impacted different nations differently. Some have contained the spread of the virus for a month, even three, before seeing a second but more contained outbreak. The Philippines, in comparison to most of its Asean neighbors, hasn’t done as good a job in containing the virus. But in comparison to a country like the United States we seem to have done a better job of limiting new case numbers; at worst our cases are at 1/20to those of the US, which by comparison has a population that is three times ours.
    So yes, there are reasons why we should pat ourselves (or our government) in the back, but yes, there are also reasons why we should give ourselves (or our government) a strong, swift kick from behind.

    I don’t need to remind you how our Secretary of Health 1) refused to ban flights from China to avoid political consequences (late January); 2) boasted having enough test kits when all we had was 2,000 (early February); 3) rejoiced that we had become a model of containment, thanks to the quick decisions of the President (said in early March); 4) blamed his department for slow contact tracing (said in a Senate hearing in early March) and 5) announced a case in Greenhills in mid-March but denied it was an evidence of local transmission (the “immaculate infection” case). Anyone of the above is enough to merit a swift kick, but our “Dr. Faulty” seems untouchable and maybe not even God knows why.

    I’ve been able to overcome my deep sense of disbelief and disgust when it comes to how our government has struggled to get a hold of the COVID outbreak, and for the last two months or so have simply refocused my energies on surviving and looking forward to a new year (and a new US president, even if there’s nothing I can to do help on that score). But my sense of peace and calm was achieved because I had no idea that something else more disgusting was lurking just beneath the horizon.

    It’s called PhilHealth.

    PhilHealth is our scheme of a national health insurance that takes monies from employees and their employers – or from individuals who seek membership on a personal level – that plays a significant role in reducing the otherwise stratospheric healthcare bills a Filipino is confronted with when he recovers from his medical condition – or his family has to confront over and above all other expenses they have to pay if their loved one wasn’t so lucky in his bout with his affliction and passes away. I have availed of the benefit of PhilHealth at least once already, and that’s when I decided to have elective cholecystectomy when I was told in 2017 that my MRI had revealed two or three budding gallstones. Having heard of tales of woe about gallstone attacks (from Atty. Francis Ballesteros of Philex and from Mayor Lino Cayetano of Taguig, among others) I decided not to wait any longer and undergo laparoscopic surgery to get rid of the stones – and my gallbladder, too. All in all, I only had to pay P80,000 after PhilHealth took care of part of the bill. (Of course, it helped that my excellent surgeon was a student of my father’s at the UP College of Medicine who was kind enough to waive his professional fees).

    So yes, I know the value of PhilHealth and am grateful it exists.

    But to hear that its coffers have been systematically raided by a syndicate so well entrenched that the PhilHealth president says not even Superman could defeat them makes my blood boil more than the silly idea to have couples separated by a shield while riding a motorbike. You see, in my book, stupidity you can forgive. But stealing peoples’ money meant for healthcare and discovering this during the time of a pandemic? That’s beyond criminal.

    And my blood boils for two main reasons. First, this is peoples’ money. We seem to have become callous to public officials (elected or otherwise) dipping their sticky fingers into the public purse and appropriating whatever they can as their own. We have gotten to the point that we seem to expect it of people in office, even if they are our friends. So that even if we know how dramatically wealthy they have become over the years despite holding “low-paying” positions in government, we simply shrug and attribute their “improved” situation to “some are smarter than others.”

    And why do we citizens react this way? Because whatever it is that is “stolen” from each of us individually is “small” – my officemate Lira just checked an old payslip and it says P550 was her PhilHealth deduction (circa 2018). Since it is deducted from our pay, we don’t see it. And when what is stolen is something we don’t see we aren’t moved much. But imagine adding up the P550 deducted from, say, one million Filipinos every payday. Now imagine how large that public purse is into which sticky fingers are dipped.

    The second reason is this: no one wants to get sick. Getting sick is in itself a “kamalasan,” which to more than half of the Filipino population is just one step short of a death sentence in terms of a burden. It drains the meager family coffers. But hey, there’s PhilHealth to the rescue! Somehow, that burden is lifted, because somehow part of the cost is shouldered by the government. Every little help counts, and PhilHealth can be more than just “little help” to many.

    Yet now we are told we are facing the risk that by 2022 PhilHealth will be bankrupt. How will our less fortunate countrymen overcome the double whammy of an affliction on the one hand and a stratospheric hospital bill on the other?

    One last point: I am surprised that it took PRRD a few days to hurl expletives and threats at the PhilHealth scandal, when he has always been quick to do so against others, especially political enemies. And while he is quick to even name names when he is angry at others, he has never cursed anyone at PhilHealth – not even its chairman, Secretary Duque, who has been with PhilHealth almost uninterrupted since 2001 (if I am not mistaken). What explains this “time release” anger, sir, when it is the health care money of your struggling countrymen that has been pocketed here?

    I said it above and I will say it again. Stupidity in government I can forgive. But stealing the peoples’ money? That’s a hurt that goes deep and is felt for a long time.