Duterte suspends higher PhilHealth premiums for OFWs, makes payments 'voluntary – Roque

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
totalITemsFound:
maxPaginationLinks: 10
maxPossiblePages:
startIndex:
endIndex:

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 4) –– President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered PhilHealth to suspend the collection of higher premiums from overseas Filipino workers, his spokesman Harry Roque said Monday.

"Habang meron tayong krisis, ang naging desisyon ng Presidente (ay) huwag na muna tayong magpataw ng karagdagang pahirap sa ating mga OFWs, lalong lalo na sa panahon na napakarami sa kanilang nare-repatriate at nawalan ng trabaho [While we are facing a crisis, the President decided not to impose additional burden on OFWs for now, especially at a time when so many of them have been repatriated and have lost their jobs]," Roque said in his regular press briefing, adding that their membership can be "voluntary" for now.

He added that Duterte also suspended the higher premium rates levied on the salaries of OFWs. "Iyan naman ay nagkaroon ng mabilisang aksyon ang ating Kalihim ng Kalusugan at sinuspinde nga ang increased collection para sa PhilHealth [That has been acted upon swiftly by the Health secretary, who suspended the increased collections for PhilHealth]," Roque added.

Thousands of Filipinos have flown home as they lost jobs abroad, with the Labor Department offering a one-time aid worth ₱10,000 for repatriated workers.

RELATED: Cash aid extended to 86,000 OFWs, more than half of target — DOLE

Philippine Health Insurance Corporation Vice President and Spokesperson Dr. Shirley Domingo said the agency is still awaiting specific instructions from Malacañang.

"'Yung sustainability and the achievement of the goals of the Universal Health Care law, syempre we need funding for that," Domingo told CNN Philippines' Newsroom Ngayon.

"It will affect the fund. Hinihintay natin ang [we are waiting for] communication from Malacañang on this, ica-clarify natin 'yun –– will it be on the short-term lang during the COVID pandemic, because we have to have some long-term sustainability measures. We have to assess everything."

OFWs are required to remit 3 percent of their annual salaries to PhilHealth computed from a monthly pay range of ₱10,000 to ₱60,000, up from last year's 2.75 percent rate. By 2021, the contribution will be raised to 3.5 percent and will be raised annually until the share hits 5 percent by 2024.

PhilHealth Circular 2020-0014 issued last month implements the Universal Healthcare Law by requiring all OFWs to submit their proof of income, from which the amount of their premium payments will be computed. Foreign currency salaries will be first converted into US dollar and then to pesos, which will then be the basis for the contribution.

For example, an OFW earning $400 or ₱20,800 monthly (from an exchange rate of ₱52 per dollar) will have to pay ₱7,488 to PhilHealth for the year. The agency allows an initial payment of ₱2,400, with the option to pay the balance in quarterly installments. Sea-based OFWs will be charged monthly, which will be automatically deducted from their salaries by their manning agencies.

Philippine Health Insurance Corporation President and Chief Executive Officer Ricardo Morales said separately that the agency is looking at a longer payment period as well as optional contributions following backlash on the collection of health insurance premiums amid the COVID-19 crisis.

"I'm sure hindi pa naman matatapos ito ng [this crisis won't end by] May 30, (so) we are looking at a longer period of the moratorium. In effect, flexible payment period," Morales said during the Laging Handa briefing.

Currently, premium payments from OFWs as well as other members of the state insurance firm have been on hold until May 30 due to the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, but the agency is looking to extend this further.

​Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and several lawmakers have said they will ask PhilHealth to suspend collection of higher contributions from overseas Filipino workers to ease their financial woes amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Voluntary premiums

Roque added that the President's order made all OFW contributions to the state insurer "voluntary," contrary to a PhilHealth order that puts some 10 million workers abroad part of its funding base.

The UHC law makes all Filipinos automatic members of PhilHealth and eligible to avail of select medical services for free. The mounting cost of implementation –– pegged at ₱257 billion for the first year –– prompted authorities to raise additional funds by higher contributions as well as additional tax collections.

For the coming years, all premiums must be settled in quarterly tranches or in full annually. Failure to settle premiums on time will incur "monthly compounded interest," according to the circular.

However, Morales said PhilHealth needs a wider base of contributing members. He noted that the agency currently lists 3.6 million OFWs pitching in regularly.

In 2019, OFWs and their families availed of ₱1.7 billion worth of medical services after contributing ₱1 billion to the PhilHealth fund. Of these, 69 percent have been availed by their dependents in the Philippines, while less than a third were directly used by OFWs to cover their own medical expenses.

OFWs who get sick abroad must first settle their dues with the foreign medical facility then submit receipts and documents to PhilHealth so they can claim their reimbursement, Domingo said.

'Insensitive'

OFW groups started a Change.org petition addressed to PhilHealth last week against these premium payments. The petition has surpassed 390,000 signatures as of Monday morning.

However, PhilHealth said the rules have been announced as early as November 23, 2019. 

READ: Higher PhilHealth contributions starting January 2020

"These ambitious health goals must be supported by adequate funding collected through increased premium rates," Morales also said in a statement, hinting that it would be difficult to change the policy.

"As an agency of government, sensitive to the welfare and well-being of all Filipinos, PhilHealth commits to continue exploring means to soften and alleviate the impact of premium rate increase, but it cannot change the Law."

Senator Joel Villanueva told CNN Philippines' The Source that Congress "will look into" the OFW community's petition against the premium payments, while several lawmakers have also blasted the new rule. Senator Kiko Pangilinan also said PhilHealth's April circular was "insensitive and ill-timed" as it came right in the middle of the coronavirus crisis.

READ: Online plea vs. PhilHealth premium hike for migrant workers gains support from authorities, groups

Senator Christopher "Bong" Go, who chairs the Senate Health Committee, now asked the state insurance firm to consider delaying the collection of higher premiums to ease the burden of OFWs. He also asked PhilHealth to exempt people classified as "overseas Filipinos in distress" from payments.

The UHC Act cleared both chambers of Congress in December 2018 and was signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte on February 20, 2019.