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Magsaysay laureate challenges Pinoys to bring healthcare rights violations to SC

August 29, 2013 7:23pm

The Supreme Court has issued landmark rulings protecting citizens' rights to vote and to enjoy a better environment. But in its entire 112-year history, it has yet to be confronted with a case concerning one of the ordinary Filipino's basic rights—the right to have access to healthcare.

With the recent passage of the National Health Insurance Act (NHIA) and the launch of the government's Kalusugang Pangkalahatan (KP) program, 2013 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Dr. Ernesto Domingo thinks the time is ripe for the high Court to decide on a case related to public healthcare.

"It's about time to bring the issue of healthcare to the Supreme Court," Domingo said at a forum on public health held at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) Wednesday.

The 76-year-old physician, who was one of the convenors of the Universal Healthcare study group that produced the "Blueprint for Universal Healthcare" that the Department of Health eventually adopted for its KP program, said that with the recent policy developments, it is timely for the Court to address violations regarding public access to healthcare.

"People have brought to the Court cases where they were disenfranchised as a voter and the Court restored their political right. Perhaps now people can bring to the Court specific cases of violation of [their] right to healthcare," he said.

Domingo said that only the Supreme Court can decide whether a person's right to health has been violated in the hypothetical story he cited about a poor patient dying due to lack of access to medical care at a hospital.

"If a poor person goes to a public or private hospital but did not get the necessary medical attention and then dies as a consequence, was his right violated? That should be tried in court. Let's see what the high Court will say," he said.

'Game changer'

Domingo's public lecture became an open discussion on the government's healthcare policies since the event was attended by public officials who are or were once at the helm of government health agencies—all of whom were his former students at the University of the Philippines Manila.

The officials present during the forum were: Former Health secretaries Manuel Dayrit and Alberto Romualdez, former PhilHealth President and Chief Executive Officer Eduardo Banzon, current Health undersecretary Teodoro Herbosa and acting Food and Drug Administration (FDA) chief Kenneth Hartigan-Go.

After giving a short speech, Domingo asked each of his former students about the possibility and sustainability of providing free healthcare for all Filipinos.

Banzon said universal healthcare is no longer a far-fetched dream for the government to achieve as it has managed to raise the money through sin taxes to include the poorest Filipinos in Philhealth's coverage.

The former PhilHealth CEO, who quit his post in January, said the increase in PhilHealth's budget is a "game changer" that will allow PhilHealth to provide better coverage for more individuals.

"Historically, we've only been able to cover people based on the resources available to us. Given that the money is there now—which was not there before—forget about just limiting PhilHealth coverage to the poor. Let's do the Thai approach and enroll everybody now," he said.

Herbosa, meanwhile, said one of Department of Health's present challenges is the upgrade of healthcare facilities to accommodate Filipinos who would like to avail themselves of medical care.

The Health undersecretary mentioned the pork barrel scam in passing and said the P10 billion channeled by certain lawmakers to bogus non-government organizations could have been used to improve the national healthcare system.

"Every legislator who's trying to escape the scam is declaring that their PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund) was put in[to] health. So I challenge them [to] really put it in the health department and make it work for the modernization of healthcare facilities. If they're gonna put that much money, I can modernize the hospitals and provide (healthcare) access to any Philhealth member," he said.

'Brown people need more'

Domingo added that an additional challenge for the government is to recruit and retain healthcare practitioners who would commit to serve even if there are lucrative offers for them to practice elsewhere.

The physician related that he recently told an "insensitive joke" about why he decided to return to the Philippines despite receiving lucrative offers to set up a practice in the United States after staying as a fellow in various American hospitals.

"I told the guy, 'I can't work with white people.' What I mean by that is that they (Americans) have so much but the brown person needs a lot. They don't need me there anymore because [America has] a lot of doctors already," he said.

Domingo, a specialist in hepatology and gastroenterology, devoted over four decades of his life to UPM as a researcher, teacher, chancellor, and Professor Emeritus.

His research in liver-related diseases and advocacy for public health has earned him numerous accolades through the years, including the 2000 Dangal ng Bayan Award from the Civil Service Commission and the Most Outstanding Physician Award from the Philippine College of Physicians.

In 2010, the National Academy of Science and Technology named Domingo as a National Scientist.

In conferring Domingo with the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the foundation's board of trustees "recognizes his exemplary embrace of the social mission of his medical science and profession, his steadfast leadership in pursuing 'health for all' as a shared moral responsibility of all sectors, and his ground-breaking and successful advocacy for neonatal hepatitis vaccination, thereby saving millions of lives in the Philippines."

He will join three other distinguished Asians in receiving the Ramon Magsaysay Award at a presentation ceremony on Aug. 31. — VC, GMA News

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