Is the universal health care act something to cheer about?

By Sonny Africa

Wait muna! Okey lang to cheer pero let’s be clear what we’re cheering for.

Does the “universe” in Universal Health Care Act mean that all Filipinos will get all their health care free, like Ms. Universe Catriona Gray is now presumed the most beautiful woman in all the universe?

All Filipinos are automatically enrolled which is certainly pretty universal.

But are all health care needs covered or, indeed, even just all health care expenses? Not if PhilHealth’s record so far is any indication.

According to the latest 2017 National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS), PhilHealth covered just one-third (34%) of the average private hospital bill of Php33,191. Patients in private health facilities still had to cough up an average of Php22,060. Paying two-thirds of the cost of confinement doesn’t sound very universal.

It’s a little better for patients in public hospitals and PhilHealth covered 71% of the average public hospital bill of Php11,627. But then patients in public hospitals are much poorer, likely don’t even have enough to live decently on a day-to-day basis, and almost certainly don’t have any savings — so the Php3,357 that they still have to pay is a huge burden.

And it’s virtually unpayable for the poorest 6.5 million Filipino families who struggle to get by on incomes of just Php10,000 or even much less a month. So even that 71% paid for by PhilHealth isn’t very universal either.

Now what would really be universal is if there were enough public hospitals to give free health care for every Filipino. 

The country is far away from that and, with the government’s preference for health privatization, not even trying to go there. Around half of hospital beds are in private hospitals which means that many many poor Filipino families are forced to choose the more expensive Php33,191 private hospital option over the Php11,627 public hospital option just because there isn’t enough of the latter. 

Public hospitals are also chronically underfunded because the government’s version of universal health care is not to strengthen the public health system. Instead, it’s to incentivize profit-seeking private interests to set up private profit-seeking hospitals by partially subsidizing patient spending through PhilHealth. 

So it’s no surprise why private hospitals are about three times as expensive as public hospitals — a profit premium is built into the private hospital’s bill.

So, something to cheer about?

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