POSTSCRIPT / May 5, 2020 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Duterte frees OFWs from PhilHealth rule

INTERVENTION by President Duterte ended yesterday the debate over the raising of health insurance premiums of Overseas Filipino Workers under the Universal Health Care program. He ordered their outright exemption from payment.

The President’s order suspended a circular of the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) that OFWs’ payments to the UHC program equivalent to 2.5 percent of their salaries will be raised this year to 3 percent.

The circular signed on April 2 by PhilHealth President/CEO Ricardo C. Morales was met by howls of labor groups worldwide and their sympathizers protesting its provisions that:

*The worker’s contribution of 2.75 percent of his monthly salary in the P10,000-P50,000 range will be raised this year to 3 percent in the P10,000-P60,000 bracket. In pesos, his previous annual contribution of P7,488 minimum will go up to P21,600.

*After 2020, the new 3-percent rate will go up by .5 percent every year until it reaches 5 percent of one’s monthly salary (applied on the P10,000-P100,000 range in 2025) for a total annual contribution to PhilHealth of P21,600.

The President also directed that OFWs’ paying for insurance must be voluntary and that their paying of PhilHealth premium be no longer required before they can secure an overseas employment certificate.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque, who announced Duterte’s intervention in a televised briefing, said:

“Sa ngayon po, habang meron tayong krisis, ang naging desisyon ng Presidente, huwag na muna tayong magpataw ng karagdagang pahirap sa ating mga OFWs, lalong lalo na sa panahon na napakadami sa kanila ang nare-repatriate at nawalan na rin ng trabaho.

Whether or not tataas po ‘yan, well, realidad po na ang isang insurance system ay kinakailangan naka-base sa actuarial science.”

PhilHealth is an agency attached to the Department of Health. It said it was up to Congress to review the policy on OFW premium payments. The law says that for every increase in the rate of contribution, there must be a corresponding improvement in benefits.

It is not clear if the suspended PhilHealth circular which was addressed to OFWs would have applied also to the millions of Filipino workers in the country since it could be confusing to have separate or different exaction rules for them.

We are verifying if the circular covers Filipinos who are working abroad without having passed through the Department of Labor and also those who pay income tax to both the Philippines and the country where they work or do business.

Many OFWs who contribute to PhilHealth are asking if the agency will pay their hospital and healthcare bills when they go for consultation or treatment in their place of work abroad.

The spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in the country, infecting 9,485 and killing 623 as of yesterday, has heightened the importance of PhilHealth coverage. Without it, most infected workers who escape the pandemic may not be able to survive the expenses.

Some hospitals hesitate to accept PhilHealth guarantees because it is difficult to collect from the insurance fund. The University of Santo Tomas hospital, for example, is reportedly planning to lay off workers as a result of PhilHealth collection problems.

Duterte is expected to stand by the UHC law (RA 11223). On Oct. 1, 2018, he certified to the Congress the then bill which, he said, addresses “the urgent need for an affordable, comprehensive and quality health care program that is accessible to all Filipinos.”

March 14, 2019, was “a time for celebration” as President Duterte in the presence of congressional leaders signed the UHC bill into law giving “citizens access to the full continuum of health services they need, while protecting them from enduring financial hardship.”

But now with funds for that ambitious healthcare insurance running low, worried workers are wondering where their contributions went.

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said on Twitter: “It is like an income tax which was abolished for OFWs; and (now), even their tax-free income filings were destroyed. They are just totally out of the purview of government exactions for which they will not benefit at all.

“Why don’t we just leave OFWs alone except to help them when they are in trouble. Their blood but better wages abroad account for 10 percent of our (gross domestic product) according to the a**holes who want to take some of their earnings.”

Migrante International, the global alliance of Filipino migrant organizations in 24 countries, aired the overseas workers’ objection to the increase of contributions to the UHC fund. It said:

“This increase overburdens OFWs who are already troubled by retrenchments and loss of income due to the COVID-19 pandemic and recession. An overwhelming number of OFWs are not even covered by President Duterte’s DOLE-AKAP cash aid program, and repatriated OFWs have been crying out to the government for steady and efficient amelioration.”

It asked Malacañang to stop mandatory PhilHealth premium payment, enforce a moratorium on all other state exactions, remove the punitive penalties, and junk the requirement for an overseas employment certificate – some of which Duterte just did.

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello said the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration recommended “status quo” – meaning the collection of PhilHealth contribution will not be tied to the issuance of overseas employment certificate of departing OFWs.

The labor department reported that nearly 86,000 overseas Filipino workers have been granted the one-time ₱10,000 ($200) financial assistance with the Abot Kamay Ang Pagtulong (AKAP) program.

The department said that its Philippine Overseas Labor Offices have received 336,809 applications for cash aid from stranded and evacuated OFWs as of May 1. Assistance to some 150,000 OFWs, or more than half of its target beneficiaries, has been given out, it added.

House Deputy Speaker and Basilan Rep. Mujiv Hataman urged President Duterte to order the withdrawal of the circular, and provide the “modern heroes” (by which OFWs are sometimes called) some relief. “Ceasefire muna sa bagong singil,” he said.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 5, 2020)

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