MANILA, Philippines – “For delicadeza’s sake, they must inhibit.”
Thirty-five medical organizations supported this statement as they signed a manifesto calling on Senators Ralph Recto and Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr to inhibit from the bicameral conference proceedings on the sin tax reform bill.
The groups, representing over 100,000 doctors, signed the manifesto in a press conference at the Philippine General Hospital on Wednesday, November 28. Health Secretary Enrique Ona witnessed the signing of the manifesto.
Asked if this meant his support for the call, Ona told reporters, “I am witness to that (manifesto). So in essence, that’s part of support to the manifesto.”
“It is up to us to show our total support to our real health champion, Sen [Franklin] Drilon, to hopefully prevent those two from being included in the bicam,” Ona told the medical groups.
The manifesto urged Recto and Marcos to inhibit, citing newspaper reports about Recto’s “secret meeting” with tobacco companies and the presence of Philip Morris Fortune Tobacco Corp (PMFTC) lawyers during Marcos’ interpellation of the measure.
“We strongly believe that by championing the commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in the passage of the sin tax, the two senators have compromised the welfare of the Filipino people,” the manifesto read.
The manifesto also calls on legislators to pass a measure “that will prevent thousands of deaths,” asking them not to further water down the bill.
Dr Leo Olarte, vice president of the Philippine Medical Association (PMA), led the signing of the manifesto. The PMA is the umbrella group of all medical associations.
The other signatories covered a wide range of organizations: from the Philippine Heart Association to the Philippine Pediatric Society.
“Their (Recto and Marcos) integrity has been questioned,” said Dr Antonio Dans, professor of the UP College of Medicine.
“Delicadeza should lead them to decline membership [in the bicam]… so that the proceedings, the results of the final bill will not be shrouded in a cloud of doubt where we are thinking some senators represent the industry more than the people,” Dans added.
Recto and Marcos have been criticized for their stand on the bill.
Marcos has admitted that he is protecting the interest of tobacco farmers of Ilocos Norte, where he hails from. The senator though said that while lawyers of PMFTC kept offering him figures, he used independent data during the interpellation.
Recto initially sponsored his own version of the bill but withdrew it and resigned as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee following criticism from advocates. The Recto bill sought to only raise P15 billion in revenues, far from the government’s target of P60 billion.
The senator denied he secretly met with the tobacco groups and said that all meetings he had on the bill, including those with finance officials, were held in his office.
‘Increase unitary tax rate to P29’
The sin tax reform bill hurdled the Senate on November 20. The bicameral conference committee is set to reconcile the Senate and House of Representatives versions in the coming days. Both chambers have yet to announce the members of the committee.
The Senate version aims to raise additional revenues of around P40 billion from tobacco and alcoholic products while the House’s target is P31 billion.
In the press conference, health advocates reiterated their call for the bicam proceedings to be open to the public, and to protect reform provisions in the bill.
Ona said health groups should fight for a unitary tax of at least P29. The version sponsored by Sen Franklin Drilon initially proposed a unitary tax of P32 by 2017 but the Senate lowered this to P26 in the final version.
Dr Anthony Leachon, Department of Health consultant on non-communicable diseases, said that members of the bicam group must also remove the so-called sunset provision that cuts automatic funding to health after 2016.
Dans said, “They suggested that the earmark [for universal health care] ends in 2016, meaning in 2016, poor people start paying for their own health care again. Are you telling me in 3 years, we will no longer be a poor country?”
Dans added that the final version must fast-track the achievement of a unitary tax rate.
The Senate bill staggers the increase in taxes of various types of cigarettes until 2017, when the unitary tax rate of P26 per pack will be imposed. The Senate version imposes 3 tiers for cigarettes, while the House has two.
“We must fight for the true unitary system sooner than later. Why should we give one or two years so they can kill more people? We’re bargaining with people’s lives. We cannot allow that,” said Dans.
‘Most important health bill’
The health professionals stressed that the sin tax bill is mainly a health measure and not just a revenue legislation.
“This is the most important health care, medical bill that will probably be discussed in Congress,” said Ona. “I’m certain it will be passed, the problem is how much watering down [there will be].”
Ona thanked the doctors for the “very dramatic support” they showed by attending the event and signing the manifesto.
He reiterated that revenues from the measure will be used for an additional 5.2 million families to be enrolled in the health care program.
“We are going into the very important last stage of that battle. I know if we continue with very strong pressure on our legislators, our senators will listen to us and to the voice not only of us doctors but also the entire [nation],” said Ona. – Rappler.com