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A vital move for healthcare

/ 12:42 AM August 18, 2012

The “sin tax” bill is now in the hands of our senators after its amended version got the House’s approval on final reading two months ago. Although the approved version is somewhat watered down with projected revenues from it reduced from an estimated P60 billion to P32 billion annually, it will still provide much-needed funds for the improvement of our healthcare services. Hopefully, there will be no further watering down of the bill in the Senate.

It will be noted that the sin tax reform bill has been languishing in the House of Representatives for more than 10 years before it was finally approved last June. The strong lobbying of the tobacco and alcohol industry made approval of the bill a tough nut to crack in the House. No less can be expected in the Senate.

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The increased cost of cigarettes and alcohol products, which will be implemented once the bill finally becomes a law, will be a strong deterrent for the poor and the young smokers. It is quite ironical that the poor are spending for these vices more than 10 times what they’re spending for either education or healthcare. The prices of cigarettes and alcohol in our country are still relatively affordable compared to other neighboring countries.

Help bill’s expeditious passage

The strong pitch that President Aquino made for the sin tax bill in his State of the Nation Address should help the expeditious passage of the bill in the Senate. I’m not sure if the president still smokes (we pray that he kicks the habit himself for his sake and the country’s sake), but at least he can take pride that he has succeeded in passing the bill where at least two or three previous presidents failed. His being a smoker makes it ironical, but it’s still quite a feat to reckon with.

The generated revenues from the implementation of this soon-to-become law will also give healthcare delivery in the country a mega-dose shot in the arm, since 85 percent of the incremental revenues from the tax reforms on tobacco and alcohol products will be allocated for healthcare services. This will truly benefit the poor in more ways we can imagine.

More beneficial to the poor

In fact, I personally think it is more beneficial to the poor than the Cheaper Medicines Law approved several years ago, which cut the price of essential medicines by as much as 50 percent. We’ve stressed in previous columns that the Cheaper Medicines Law would probably help the upper 20 to 30 percent of the population but would remain meaningless for the much bigger majority whose trip to the hospital or drugstore confronts them with a dilemma whether to do the required laboratory exams and buy the prescribed medicines, or to buy food for their family for the next several days. In the end, a grumbling stomach prevails over an aching heart or a swollen joint.

The additional funds for healthcare from the sin tax law will more directly address the health needs of the poor. The additional funds could hopefully correct the serious imbalance in the distribution of major healthcare resources in the country, which is already alarming. It is well known that poor provinces have very limited medical facilities and health professionals manning them. This is partly due to the preference of both the private and public sector providers to locate in urban areas. With a bigger health budget, the government could provide a more decent compensation for these workers to make them stay in underserved areas. Despite the idealism of many health workers, the desire to live a decent life and provide for the needs of their respective families has to be reasonably met.

Irony of sorts

Previous data showed that more than 60 percent of all healthcare facilities are located in Luzon with almost half of them in the National Capital Region. Roughly only 10 percent of the country’s doctors, dentists and pharmacists; 20 percent of medical technicians; and 35 percent of nurses are practicing in the rural areas. Previously, PhilHealth ended up devoting much of its resources reimbursing healthcare facilities and providers in the more developed areas, which was an irony of sorts.

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Marginalized PhilHealth members did not bother to avail of their health benefits because they still could not afford what they needed to shell out on top of what was covered by PhilHealth. At least, since recent years, even indigent families are now PhilHealth members and for some diseases, they don’t have to shell out a single centavo when hospitalized or treated for their medical problems.

We’re still quite a distance from universal healthcare or “kalusugang pangkalahatan,” but the additional funds from rationalization of taxes on tobacco and alcohol products can certainly help a lot to provide the fuel for the country’s healthcare engine to reach its final destination of 100-percent coverage.

We eagerly await as our senators make the next vital move on the sin tax bill.

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TAGS: alcohol, cigarettes, Health, Philippines, sin tax bill
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