Marcos’ 100 days: No DOH secretary, unpaid health workers’ benefits

Bonz Magsambol

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Marcos’ 100 days: No DOH secretary, unpaid health workers’ benefits

The Department of Health office in Sta. Cruz, Manila on September 1, 2021.

Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

(1st UPDATE) President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has not made a dent in the country's health sector

MANILA, Philippines – President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Saturday, October 8, marked his 100th day as the chief executive of the country, and yet he has not made a dent in the country’s health sector.

Hardly anything’s changed in the fight versus the persistent COVID-19 pandemic, a problem he inherited from the Duterte administration.

Marcos still has yet to appoint a full-time health secretary, a crucial cabinet position which needs someone to spearhead the country’s exit out of the health crisis. Although he designated Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, a career official, to be the officer-in-charge.

“Hindi pa talaga natin mabigyan ng grado si President Marcos sa kanyang 100 days  dahil unang una, wala pa talaga tayo natatalaga na secretary of health. Ang mayroon lang po tayo ay OIC. As officer-in-charge, we can understand na hindi makakakilos is Secretary Vergeire. Malilimitahan siya sa puwede niyang gawin,” Philippine College of Physician past president Dr. Maricar Limpin said in an interview with TeleRadyo.

(We cannot grade the first 100 days of President Marcos because, for one, we still don’t have a health secretary. What we have is an OIC. As officer-in-charge, we can understand that Secretary Vergeire can’t move that much. She is limited in what she can do.)

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COVID-19 cases are still on the rise. Latest data from the Department of Health (DOH) showed that daily average cases is at 2,288. The government booster program is also stalling. Only 25% or 20 million of the 73.3 million fully vaccinated individuals have gotten their first booster shot. (READ: Why few Filipinos are taking COVID-19 booster shots)

Unpaid health workers’ benefits

Health workers are still struggling to claim their unpaid benefits from the government. Recently, they staged a protest urging the Marcos administration to hasten the release of their long-overdue incentives – One COVID-19 allowance (OCA), health emergency allowance (HEA) and special risk allowance (SRA).

“Nothing has changed when it comes to health workers’ long-standing dire situation, instead it worsens. Chronic understaffing in public hospitals and health facilities continues that led to health workers 16 to 24 hours of duty. Problems of low wages, over-delayed payments of minuscule benefits like the One COVID-19 Allowance (OCA), Health Emergency Allowance (HEA) and performance-based bonus (PBB) remained. Difficulty of claiming the COVID-19 compensation sickness benefit brought about by the Department of Health’s (DOH) inefficiency persists,” Alliance of Health Workers secretary-general Benjamin Santos said.

Filipino Nurses United said that less than 50% of eligible nurses in public and private hospitals were able to claim their OCA for the month of January.

Healthcare workers from different hospitals, stage a protest at the Department of Health DOH office in Sta, Cruz Manila, to demand increase in wages and the release of the long-delayed Health Emergency Allowance, on September 6, 2022.

The DOH said that the country needs 106,000 nurses both in public and private facilities and hospitals. Vergeire said that one of the reasons why the country lacks health workers is migration. She said the DOH wanted to maintain the 7,500 yearly deployment cap.

At the height of the pandemic in 2021, various hospitals were hit by a rash of resignations, aggravating a shortage of manpower and exposing once more the plight of health workers in the Philippines.

Filipino nurses continue to seek better opportunities abroad in pursuit of higher pay and better working conditions.

Although the DOH said that as of September 30, the government has disbursed over P26 billion for the grant of COVID-19 benefits and compensation.

Of these, over P18 billion was spent for the grant of SRAs, meals, accommodation, and transportation benefits, Active Hazard Duty Pay (AHDP), and Life Insurance Enrollment under the Bayanihan Laws. It added that a total of P6.64 billion was shelled out for the provision of Health Emergency Allowance (HEA) formerly known as One COVID-19 Allowance, and P1.56 billion for the payment of COVID-19 Sickness and Death Compensation.

Eased masking rules

On September 12, Marcos signed an executive order making wearing of face masks optional when outdoors, a move that was opposed by the medical community. They said that easing of the masking rule would send a wrong message to the public – that they “should not be afraid of COVID-19 anymore.”

Marcos’ 100 days: No DOH secretary, unpaid health workers’ benefits

Infectious diseases expert Dr. Rontgene Solante said that it was not right to “benchmark” the policies in the Philippines with other countries since each has a different context and situation. He was reacting to the presentation during the pandemic task force meeting which showed that among ASEAN states it was only the Philippines and Myanmar which had masking mandates.

A number of countries, including those in Europe and the United States, have already dropped the mandatory wearing of face masks in most public places, although this is still recommended in some indoor places. But the caveat is that a large portion of the population in most of these countries has been vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19.

Into the third year living with COVID-19, the virus’s path toward becoming endemic is clear. How the country would get there, though, is still largely for government and the public to decide.

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Bonz Magsambol

Bonz Magsambol covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler.