“So are these PRs a joke?”
Joie Cruz begged the question in a tweet last July 23, 2020.
This came after Cruz’s mother, 47-year-old medical nurse Ma. Theresa, died from symptoms linked to COVID-19. Despite Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) heavily promoted that all hospitalization and treatment costs would be covered for healthcare workers who contracted COVID-19, the Philhealth officer in the private hospital in Taytay had a different opinion.
“Wala na po’ng full coverage ngayon” Cruz quoted a representative in the same Tweet.
According to one of the agency’s press releases, PhilHealth was in the process of releasing P30 billion worth of financial aid for clinics and hospitals affected by the pandemic and promised to give full coverage of hospital dues to medical frontliners who have acquired COVID-19 while battling the health crisis.
This was meant to align with the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act (R.A. 11469), a recently signed law that granted Pres. Rodrigo Duterte special powers as a means to aid affected individuals and to restore the national economy during the pandemic. Among supposed benefits included the provision of additional benefits for health workers.
The fallen frontliner
Despite working for ten years in a public healthcare facility in Cainta, Ma. Theresa Cruz had to work without pay for almost four years to gain experience. She attended to the healthcare needs of the sick and the needy, among those from urban poor sectors.
Joie’s younger sister, Casey, likewise questioned the authenticity of surrounding hashtag campaigns such as “#WeHealAsOne”. According to Casey, Ma. Theresa already had suffered from pneumonia at work since March yet she continued working and how the lack of PPEs appropriate for her forced their mother to purchase her own medical suits, face mask and shower cap.
Ma. Theresa and her co-nurses had experienced the worsening healthcare conditions where there is insufficient supply of PPEs for medical frontliners, and lack of manpower to control the health situation not just in Cainta, Rizal, but across the country. Casey commented that their mother would be very anxious to file a leave of absence whenever she was sick since due to having only a few nurses on duty, every shift in the pediatric ward.
Casey also recalled how, despite her mother being a regular nurse, there were always delays in the distribution of hazard pay and in fulfilling the benefits ensured by the magna carta for public health workers.
Casey, a spokesperson of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Southern Tagalog (BAYAN-ST) and an alumna of the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB), was also among the Cabuyao 11, a group of peaceful demonstrators who were illegally arrested and detained for protesting against the President Duterte’s signing of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 into law. It was during this time that Casey herself tested positive for the virus after being detained in cramped cells in Cabuyao, and was unable to return home due to strict home quarantine.
Casey expressed sadness in the thought of not being able to see her mother alive, as she returned only after fourteen days of quarantine. “Iniiisip ko na lang na kung nagpasundo ako sa kanya noong pinalaya na kami at wala pa ang swab test result, ako pa ang magiging carrier ng virus sa kanya at sa kapatid ko,” she recalled while reminiscing about the unfortunate timing of her arrest.
Handled with (a lack) of care
Ma. Theresa was said to have possibly contracted the virus while attending a pregnant woman and her newborn child, who were later discovered to have been asymptomatic with the strain. Casey said that the lack of accessible mass testing leaves frontline health workers more vulnerable to coronavirus. Ma. Theresa herself has experienced delayed diagnosis due to insufficient testing. It took two days after her death before the Cruz family confirmed that their mother is COVID-19 positive.
On July 12, a day after the baby was delivered then was reported to have died, Ma. Theresa had dry cough and intense fever, and was given a three day break from work. Around this time, the Cruz family went through numerous delays until they were able to secure a swab test on July 20, three days after their mother’s confinement in a private hospital at Taytay. Her admittance to the hospital came after briefly quarantining at home.
Casey mentioned that Ma. Theresa asked if she could be confined in the public hospital where she worked, but due to a lack of facilities, she was instead admitted into a private hospital which was also said to have been lacking in facilities. However, the hospital was able to purchase the ventilator for Ma. Theresa when it was deemed needed.
Ma. Theresa would later die on July 22, at 11 P.M., due to cardiac arrest. On the day prior, she was intubated as a means to breathe momentarily as her oxygen rate got lower.
Casey summarized that the apathetic response from the national government specifically the established Inter-Agency Task Force gave the impression that Filipinos are merely figures to them waiting to recover on their own, or worse, die. “Ako ang nagpositive, ikaw ang sumuko. Magiging bilang na lang tayong lahat sa estadong nagpabaya sa kapakanan ng mamamayan,” Casey tweeted.
Upon tweeting about the Philhealth officer’s response to the hospital due coverage, Joie received a message from PhilHealth, as a means to address the issue.Joie revealed that the total costs of her mother’s treatments reached almost P150 thousand, with PhilHealth eventually reaching-out to cover some of the dues, with the aid of a private health insurance provider.
“With heavy hearts and in deep mourning with the unexpected death of our mother, we were left with no options since her remains had to be cremated immediately as part of health protocols,” Casey said.
After Ma. Theresa’s remains were immediately cremated, the Cruz family were deeply saddened by Philhealth’s inconsistent handling of their COVID-19 program. Casey said that Joie believed the PhilHealth officer immediately, “it may indeed result in corruption of the supposed budget allocated for frontliners assistance.”
While the family would not be taking any legal action, Casey said that the household would instead call for justice for their mother, as well as “for all of the fallen heroes amid this pandemic and for all frontline health workers who continuously wake up in the morning to serve and heal our fellow countrymen despite government’s neglect.”
Dangerous to your health
PhilHealth has been under fire for charges relating to alleged corruption and unsatisfactory measures taken during the pandemic.
Recently, PhilHealth saw the resignation of three executive workers, including anti-fraud legal officer Thorrsson Montes Keith, and the executive assistant to Philhealth president and chief executive officer Ricardo Morales, Bai Laborte, and an unnamed individual. Keith cited the strict enforcement of a mandatory PhilHealth contribution from overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), the alleged corruption and delays in distributing wages to healthcare workers as his reasons for reasoning.
On August 4, 2020, Keith believed that the Philhealth “mafia” stole P15 billion from the agency, and that he believed that the accused is aiming to compensate the costs through the OFWs’ contributions. Morales was also reported to have been approving supposedly suspicious budgets for information technology equipment, allegedly meant for the agency.
Purchases such as application servers and licenses and identity management software reached about twice as much as the Department of Information and Communications Technology’s (DICT) approved costs of P25 million and P20 million, respectively.
In response to allegations of corruption, PhilHealth announced that members of their executive committee would undergo “lifestyle checks” under the supervision of any government body. Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, Jr. likewise expressed worry with Morales, a former army general and was one of the Board of Trustees for the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS), as he was appointed as PhilHealth’s president at the advice of Pres. Rodrigo Duterte. This came to be in the hopes of supposedly eradicating corruption in the agency.
Despite health secretary Francisco Duque III being furious with the findings, even to the point of daring those accused to not “cheat the system or attempt to do it,” the Department of Health (DOH) has also been the receiving end of several points of criticism.
Duque became the most prominent focus of the discussion, as it was under his leadership that numerous anomalies were uncovered regarding the number of positive cases in the country, among other controversies. It was also partly because of his department’s bureaucratic accreditation process that led to a difficult and widely inconsistent testing procedure. [P]
Photo credits to Philippine Star