By Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III

Is this essay about a documentary or a newscast of Atom Araullo on the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. or PhilHealth? Or is this about journalist Atom’s opinion on PhilHealth?

I thought that mentioning Atom in the title and intro of this column would capture the attention of a vast readership, especially the young ones.

But I cannot assume all the readers know Atom. Here’s how the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) describes him: “He is one of the best-known faces in broadcast journalism in the Philippines.” The UNCHR appointed Atom as its Goodwill Ambassador in 2019.

Atom has received multiple awards, including a Palanca Memorial Award in 2022 for his essay “Letter from Tawi Tawi.” Also in 2022, The Atom Araullo Specials obtained three prestigious international awards. To wit: a Silver Award from the Cannes Corporate and Media TV Awards for Documentaries and Reports in the Human Concerns and Social Issues category, Best Asian Documentary at the Busan International Film Festival, and the Gold World Medal at the New York Festivals TV & Film Award. Winning these coveted international awards within a year is some sort of a grand slam.

It just so happens that Atom’s parents, Carol and Mike, are my friends. Which has given me an opportunity to have informal conversations with him. Once or twice, I asked Atom, a graduate of applied physics at the University of the Philippines, whether he is still able to use in journalism his academic background in the hard science. Atom’s quick and spontaneous answer: His training in the sciences has helped him observe things, gather information, ask questions, test ideas, remove bias, and make conclusions in an objective manner.

In an interview conducted by the Spotify podcast Jim & Saab (by Jim Bacarro and Saab Magalona), Atom responded to a question on having a political bias but maintaining a level of professionalism. He said: “The only thing we can do is to make sure that the methods are objective, and this is something that I learned in science. That’s why the scientific method exists. It is because you want to eliminate the biases of the scientists… [In] journalism, you can be objective about your methods.”

Consistent with the scientific method, Atom then explained that journalists follow “a very robust set of rules to make sure that the final product is balanced.” More, he said, “at least you don’t fall into the trap of producing something that is false.”

There you are, Atom explaining the scientific method or process and how he applies this to journalism. That makes him an even more respectable, credible, and convincing journalist.

The use of the scientific method is as relevant, if not more salient, when dealing with the improvement of the health of Filipinos. Health science applies to addressing PhilHealth issues.

PhilHealth is the government corporation that provides health insurance to all Filipinos. Together with the Department of Health (DoH), PhilHealth defines the health service packages to realize universal healthcare (UHC). PhilHealth, being an attached agency of the DoH, is appropriate for policy coordination and guidance.

But PhilHealth’s effectiveness, expressed in the “policy coordination and guidance,” is being threatened by the DoH’s Department Personnel Order No. 2023-2606. The Order, dated May 12, 2023 and signed by then DoH Officer-in-Charge Maria Rosario Vergeire, creates a Joint Technical Working Group (TWG) for the proposed transfer of PhilHealth to the Office of the President (OP).

The content of the DoH Order is limited to the composition of the Joint TWG and the Joint TWG’s functions. The Joint TWG is made up of DoH and PhilHealth officials. The functions are: “Revisit laws and issuances pertaining to the creation, mandates, and functions of the PhilHealth; Assess technical and strategic aspects of the proposal; Call resource persons from concerned offices; and, Submit a comprehensive report with the recommendations to the OP.”

The Order does not even explain the context, diagnosis, and rationale behind the proposal. And, in a bizarre way, the recommendations of the Joint TWG for the proposed transfer of PhilHealth to the OP will be submitted to the interested party. That is, the OP!

I could not imagine that this proposal emanated from then Officer-in-Charge Vergeire. It just does not make sense for a DoH career official to initiate a proposal to separate the DoH and PhilHealth. The hare-brained idea can only be an imposition from outside.

Or from above.

Here is an example of a proposal that clearly violates the scientific process. Let’s review the scientific method, which Atom is most aware of.

The method starts by making observations and asking questions about PhilHealth’s problems. Information is gathered, and problem solving is done through a process of trial and error to eliminate the non-essentials and narrow the selection of issues that constitute the biggest stumbling blocks or bottlenecks. This narrower set of problems (the equivalent of the hypothesis) is further analyzed, tested, and validated. Which leads to a conclusion that forms the policy recommendation.

The proposal to transfer PhilHealth to the OP does not follow the steps above. Immediately but carelessly, a solution is recommended. The said solution will now be subject to the study by the Joint TWG. But given how the scientific process has been short-circuited, the signal is to legitimize the acceptance of the proposal, but without the proper diagnostics.

In fact, doing the diagnostics will not lead to a solution requiring the transfer of PhilHealth to the OP to serve UHC objectives. A survey of scholarly papers regarding PhilHealth issues reveals no mention of an organizational transfer of PhilHealth to solve its main problems.

For example, a paper titled “Before and After the Sin Tax Law: Perceived Changes in Tertiary Government Hospitals by Inpatients and Healthcare Workers,” co-authored by G.D. Lasco, J.E. Duya, J.H. Sanchez, and A.L. Dans (2019), concluded that health financing and health service delivery have registered “significant” or “major improvements.” But the authors pointed out that the main challenge is to have “greater support for healthcare workers and enhanced health facilities.”

A 2021 paper co-authored by J. Uy, C.E. Nuevo, L.D. Casas, and V.G. Ulep titled “The Financial Health of Select Philippine Hospitals and the Role of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation as the National Strategic Purchaser of Health Services” made the following recommendations: PhilHealth should increase payments for primary healthcare; PhilHealth should “expand its fiscal space through premium increases” side by side with the expansion of commensurate benefits; and, PhilHealth should expedite capitation payment for primary healthcare and a global budget payment system in accordance with proper costing for inpatients.

Further, PhilHealth itself has commissioned numerous studies to expand “knowledge assets” and invest in learning and development. A scan of these studies does not show a recommendation involving the transfer of PhilHealth to another government agency. The organizational reforms that surface pertain to strengthening a.) PhilHealth’s strategic communication, b.) accounts management strategy, and, c.) leadership and managerial competencies.

The proposal to transfer PhilHealth from the DoH to the OP is apparently created out of thin air. This makes critics question the political motivation. Jeepy Perez, former Undersecretary and former Executive Director of the Commission on Population and Development (Popcom), remarked that the proposed transfer will make the agenda of health for all “nearly impossible” and will “remove all technical competency in public health sector policymaking.”

Our hope is that true to their professional calling, the members of the Joint TWG will do an Atom Araullo. Adhere to the scientific method in making a final recommendation.

Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.