By Paula Mae Tanquieng

I have worked on health policy for more than a decade, but I have never seen health given so much importance by ordinary Filipinos until recently. COVID-19 has made our society and politics more aware of public health. Everyone suddenly has become interested in vaccines, the Department of Health (DoH), and all types of health news.

While we have succeeded in making many important health laws in the past including the game-changing Universal Health Care Act, our lawmakers and the Executive are now keen on introducing health legislation that will address many weaknesses in our health system’s response to the pandemic.

Despite not having appointed a Health Secretary, the President in his very first state-of-the-nation address (SONA) mentioned as priority the passage of three important health measures, namely: the Vaccine Institute, Medical Reserves Corps, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This October, the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) affirmed the SONA’s legislative health agenda and included the bill on the Magna Carta for Barangay Health Workers.

Some of these proposals had already been tackled in the previous 18th Congress. The bills on the Virology Institute and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention were in fact passed on third reading at the House of Representatives, but the lack of time prevented their legislation.

For the 19th Congress, many legislators have filed or refiled the bills.

First on the list is the creation of the Virology Institute. The goal is to boost our vaccine capacity by making vaccine development its primary function. It will be established under the Department of Science and Technology and will cover therapeutic research, aside from vaccine development.

When the COVID-19 vaccines were introduced, we experienced serious supply problems. To have access to vaccines, we were literally at the mercy of vaccine-producing countries. We now realize the need to build our own vaccine development capacity.

Second is the creation of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC. Some countries like the US have a functioning CDC, which has played a leading role in fighting the pandemic. The CDC sets the tone for the adoption of US health policies in response to the pandemic. This is what the Philippines wants to emulate.

While some functions of the CDC are already performed by several bureaus under the DoH and other government agencies, the pandemic response was bogged down by a lack of coordination and the differing or contradicting positions taken by officials from different government bodies.

The hope is that the creation of a CDC will address the coordination problems by lodging into one organization all relevant and important offices. This organizational coordination will deal with a real time response to COVID-19 and other emerging diseases.

However, it is an imperative that the bill creating the CDC avoid redundancy of organizations and functions. It should also result in an institution with a voice strong enough for the Chief Executive to base the country’s health interventions and policy directions.

Third is the establishment of a Medical Reserves Corps. The aim of the bill is to have a reserve medical workforce that will be called upon in times of health emergencies. This considers the need for quick and agile deployment of human resources when necessary. Our policymakers and politicians have seen how difficult it has been for our health frontliners to work overtime, do double duty, or perform straight shifts. The situation was much worse in the early pandemic period when hospitals were always at full capacity.

The supply of health human resources has been a perennial problem. According to the World Health Organization’s global health workforce statistics of 2017, the Philippines only has 0.6 doctor per 1,000 population. We also emphasize that geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas (GIDA) have very limited health human resources.

While the objective of having a reserve is good, the bigger challenge that we need to address is how to ensure a sufficient supply of health human resources.

Lastly, on the Magna Carta for Barangay Health Workers (BHW), we do recognize the significant role played by our BHWs especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Such recognition must translate into giving commensurate benefits to them and having their ranks professionalized (instead of being politicized).

By providing them with ample training and setting qualifications, our health system will be able to establish primary care teams and networks that are the first point of contact in the delivery of basic health care services in the communities.

This will not only help address the insufficient supply of health workers in the delivery of basic health services, but will also allow better health monitoring, given the trust created by the personal link of the patients and the BHWs.

To conclude, these health priority measures for legislation, once passed into law, will aid and complement the Universal Health Care Act, and will better prepare and equip our health system in dealing with catastrophic illness or health emergencies.

Paula Mae Tanquieng, a lawyer by profession, provides legal guidance to Action for Economic Reforms in pursuit of legislative reforms on health.