WHO to PH: 'Real investment' in universal health care 'needs to happen'

MANILA, Philippines – World Health Organization (WHO) Country Representative Gundo Weiler urged the Philippine government to make a “real investment” in Filipinos’ health by ensuring funding for the implementation of universal health care (UHC) once the law is passed.

Weiler said that UHC is a “pathway” countries take to save lives, improve the health of their people, and financially protect populations from the high costs of health care.

“It is clear that UHC is not coming for free. It is a real investment that needs to happen and it is an investment that will generate huge returns,” Weiler said in a press conference at the Department of Health (DOH) Monday, November 5.

He added, “Let's be clear about it, it will have huge returns in terms of population health. We will save lives with the UHC law, but also there will be economic returns for the population.”

Weiler said that despite best efforts taken in the country so far, gaps in accessing health care services remain a reality in the Philippines.

“There are still people in the Philippines who are pushed into poverty because of costs that are associated with using health services and the UHC law is really poised to address these two major factors: namely, making sure there is access to services for everybody and improve the financial protection of the population,” he said.

HEALTH CARE. (L-R) Pulse Asia Research Director Ana Tabunda, WHO country representative Gundo Weiler, Health Secretary Francisco Duque, Health Undersecretary Enrique Domingo at a press conference at the DOH November 5, 2018. Photo by Sofia Tomacruz/Rappler

HEALTH CARE. (L-R) Pulse Asia Research Director Ana Tabunda, WHO country representative Gundo Weiler, Health Secretary Francisco Duque, Health Undersecretary Enrique Domingo at a press conference at the DOH November 5, 2018.

Photo by Sofia Tomacruz/Rappler

According to the Department of Health, about P257 billon is needed to implement health reforms the first year it implements the UHC law.

But Health Secretary Francisco Duque already estimates a funding gap of P164 billion. He pointed out that higher tobacco taxes are needed to fund the program.

Because of this, the DOH is pushing to increase excise tax on cigarettes to P90 per pack from the current P32.50. This would result in revenues of about P45 to P47 billion. (READ: Cigarette prices to increase more with passage of universal health care bill)

Critics of the proposed measure to increase tobacco taxes have tagged it as “anti-poor,” as majority of smokers in the Philippines come from poorer populations.

Weiler, however, said the WHO “fully supports” the health department’s push to generate additional funds for health care through an increase in tobacco taxes.

“We have to invest, we need to find the money to invest,” he said.

Weiler likewise said efforts in the Philippines to increase tobacco taxes were “pro-poor” as they would protect individuals – who may have difficulty shouldering high health expenses – from developing serious illnesses linked to smoking.

“We from WHO consider increases in tobacco taxation a pro-poor measure because we know that the poorer segments of the population respond better to price increases and will be more easily giving up smoking and reducing the consumption of cigarettes,” he said.

Apart from this, Weiler also said one of the "best methods" to reduce smoking in a country was to make cigarettes more expensive "so the people also feel the impact of tobacco not only for their health but also in their pockets."

The Senate and House of Representatives have approved their versions of the UHC bill, but both houses have yet to convene a bicameral conference committee to reconcile the different provisions in the two versions of the bill.

After this, the bill will be up for signature by the President. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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