All overseas Filipino workers are required to contribute to PhilHealth by virtue of Republic Act No. 7875 on the creation of a National Health Insurance Program. The law should have been enough to assure a healthy percentage of OFWs in PhilHealth’s membership rolls considering how essential affordable health care is to every Filipino family.
Alas, the opposite is true. In 2016, the premium payments of OFW PhilHealth members amounted to only P823 million compared to more than P1.7 billion pesos in 2014 and P1.2-B in 2015. This represents a drop of P490-million in premium payments. The assumption is that this whopping decline also represents a huge drop in OFW memberships. Why the sharp decline? And how can PhilHealth check and reverse it?
In 2014, collections of mandatory contributions for OWWA, PhilHealth and Pag-IBIG of OFWs were tied up with the process of obtaining an Overseas Employment Certificate (OEC) that only the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) can issue. Why is the OEC important? It is proof that the holder is an OFW and therefore entitled to certain privileges under the law, such as exemptions from paying the airport terminal fee and travel tax. It also enables the POEA to maintain a database of OFWs that have gone through legitimate channels of deployment to include the name and location of its private recruitment agency, foreign recruitment agency, and foreign employer.
Thus, every OFW that passed through the POEA automatically became a member of PhilHealth, Pag-IBIG Fund, and OWWA, because of that single collection process.Walang hirap ang tatlong ahensya sa pagkolekt ang kontribusyon noon dahil sa POEA.
In April 2015, to address the clamor of OFWs complaining about the process and costs of obtaining their OECs, the POEA decided that it would no longer serve as the collecting arm ofPag-IBIG Fund and PhilHealth. It was the POEA’s way of telling the two GOCC giants, “Market your services on your own.” Since OWWA also belongs to the labor department’s official family, the POEA had no problem collecting membership contributions in OWWA’s behalf.
Being untethered should have spurredPhilHealth to come up with its own aggressive marketing and awareness campaign for OFWs, in the same way that Pag-IBIG Fund and OWWA continue to reach out to OFWs, their families and various stakeholders. But it hasn’t, and many OFWs still lack in-depth information about PhilHealth’s programs, packages, and services.
Yet, we look at OFW contributions to Pag-IBIG Fund and see a healthy annual rate of P2-billion, slightly higher in 2016 compared to the year before. So it can’t just be the delinking of collection efforts by the POEA that has sunk OFW membership levels in PhilHealth.
There is another reason behind the decline and it is putrid. Based on reliable sources, it seems that for quite some time, certain liaison officers of private recruitment agencies were pocketing the premium contributions of OFWs, without the knowledge of the owners and the workers themselves. These unscrupulous agency staff whose main role is to facilitate the processing of OFW clients, have been issuing fake PhilHealth receipts to unsuspecting migrant workers. Such cases involve millions of pesos and are now under investigation.
Why hasPhilHealth not issued any warning about this scam nor has it met with the different recruitment associations to seek their help in stopping it? Perhaps, the institution is awaiting the results of the ongoing investigation. Meanwhile, our OFWs must be on guard for such unscrupulous acts of greedy liaison officers.
There is a third reason behind the falling contribution rates, and it is something that PhilHealth can easily address.
The 2013 law creating PhilHealth includes the following specific mandate and function:
“To establish an office, or where it is not feasible, designate a focal person in every Philippine Consular Office in all countries where there are Filipino citizens. The office or the focal person shall, among others, process, review and pay the claims of the overseas Filipino workers (OFWs);”
An in-patient domestic worker in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia would find it difficult to obtain her medical records, let along have it translated into English, within a period of 180 days as required by PhilHealth for medical reimbursements. The foreign employer would want her back as soon as possible once the doctor pronounces the domestic worker to be fit to work.
Had PhilHealth invested in focal persons overseas as the law so requires, problems encountered by ailing OFW members can be sorted out onsite.
It’s been four years since that law was passed, and no such focal persons have been designated. Also, I have been informed that the tiny OFW division of PhilHealth had been further reduced and is now subsumed under General Membership. That this is happening during the term of President Duterte, whom OFWs refer to as their beloved “Tatay”, is quite ironic. So, hey, where’s the love?
I encourage the incoming PhilHealth leadership to draw inspiration from the man whom our OFWs lovingly refer to as “TatayDigong.” Considering that the President wants an entirely new department to serve our OFWs, I doubt that he would be pleased to learn that PhilHealth has done away with a separate division meant to serve our modern-day heroes.