It was a historic day when President Rodrigo R. Duterte signed the Universal Health Care (UHC) Law in February 2019. The landmark legislation expands access to health services by automatically enrolling all Filipinos in the National Health Insurance Program. The law aims to provide all Filipinos with equitable access to quality and affordable healthcare services while being protected against financial risks. However, a little over a year later, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic happened, severely affecting the global economy and overwhelming health systems in many countries, including some of the world’s wealthiest nations.
“COVID-19 has exposed the gaps and deficiencies in health systems across Asia and the Pacific and underscored the interdependence between health security and economic stability. That, in turn, has highlighted another reality: the importance of universal health coverage. Countries that have made good progress towards UHC have been able to better manage the health impacts of the pandemic — and, therefore, the economic impacts,” said the World Health Organization (WHO).
In the Philippines, the pandemic has exposed severe gaps in both public health infrastructure and national health policies. According to Francesco A. Pangalangan, executive director of Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute, the pandemic highlighted the importance of a resilient health system to ensure universal health coverage.
Recently, CitizenWatch Philippines, the Philippine Alliance of Patient Organizations (PAPO), and Health Justice Philippines launched the UHC Watch Advocacy whose goal is to initiate a constituency-led advocacy to raise awareness on the urgent need to implement the UHC Law. Transparency and accountability on the implementation of the UHC Act to provide quality and affordable healthcare are high on the UHC Watch agenda.
The group said that UHC will entail serious investments from the government and constant participation from different stakeholders. It called for the adoption of a whole-of-society and people-centered approach to improve overall health system performance. Representatives of civil society organizations, the academe, and public sector stakeholders, participated in the launch and declared their support for UHC Watch.
PAPO President Girlie Garcia-Lorenzo spoke about the patient perspective on UHC. “Every person across the globe has the right to access the healthcare they need. Health systems must be designed and health services delivered to meet the needs of the patients. Patients must be the first consideration,” she said.
Ms. Garcia-Lorenzo added that the principle of accessibility means that patients must have healthcare services when it is needed. Patient-centeredness and equity, meanwhile, means that all people regardless of condition, age or background must have fair and impartial access to healthcare. The principle of choice and empowerment, on the other hand, requires that all patients have the right to know about the healthcare services available and must be meaningfully involved in healthcare decision-making. Quality is also a major consideration as it is not enough for patients just to access healthcare. Ms. Garcia-Lorenzo said that healthcare must be safe and of the highest attainable standard.
Former Senator Joseph Victor “JV” Ejercito, committee on health chairperson and a primary author of the UHC Act, said that “a strong and integrated health ecosystem is key to preventing another health and economic crisis, hence the strategic importance of the fast and full implementation of the UHC Law.”
“Though it is understandable that the virus has disrupted the implementation of UHC and other health laws, as health advocates we must not give up our watch. We must persistently remind the government to fulfill its mandate to deliver the programs of these laws,” he added.
UHC Watch stakeholders signed a manifesto for UHC in the Philippines that stated in part: “We raise our collective voice and call on our country’s leaders to action. We appeal to the government to prioritize the implementation of the Universal Health Care Law.”
Teodoro B. Padilla is the executive director of the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP). PHAP and its member companies represent the research-based pharmaceutical sector in the country.