COMMENT: Not for Filipinos. By Patricio P. Diaz

Yesterday, I was expectantly gladdened on reading in INQUIRER.net of November 8 the report, “RP to improve health care for retirees”. I was expecting relief for retirees including all other senior citizens in terms of cost of medicine and hospitalization. Senior citizens who are neither SSS nor GSIS retirees are, by virtue of their age, also retirees in reality – life’s retirees.

However, on downloading the article, I was dismayed to find out that the move “to improve health care for retirees” is for foreign – not Filipino – retirees.

Medical Tourism

The news report by Agence France-Presse had President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Miguel Ramos, vice president of the Philippine Society of Geriatric Medicine, as its sources. They spoke at a medical industry conference in Manila.

President Arroyo emphasized three points:

First: The need for the Philippines to boost geriatric health care to attract retirees from developed countries.

Second: Hundreds of thousands of people already visit the Philippines every year to take advantage of affordable medical services. More must be attracted.

Third: The Philippines needs to improve training for geriatric healthcare specialists, noting that only four medical schools in the country offer geriatric health care in their curriculum.

She told the conferees: “There is a lack of trained health professionals in the field of geriatrics and gerontology, and there is inadequate research on key issues pertinent to old age.” [Geriatrics and gerontology are synonymous. The first is “a branch of medicine that deals with the problems and diseases of old age and aging people. The second is “comprehensive study of aging and the problems of the aged.]

Ramos reported: (1) the country avidly promotes medical tourism but the campaigns barely mention geriatric medicine; (2) it promotes expensive procedures such as cosmetic surgery; (3) the Philippines can provide cheaper care for older people from developed countries.

The imperative, he said, is the development of special units particularly for those with serious disabilities.

Business

What the President and Ramos were talking about was “health care for retirees” as business tied to tourism industry. In terms of dollars and euros, what is expensive for Filipinos is cheap for the Americans and Europeans. For the medical industry and the country, the priority is income.

Certainly, Filipino retirees are not the concern of medical industry. What profit can they give the industry with their starving monthly pensions? The money is in the foreign retirees. An American retiree’s $l,000 monthly pension is P42,000 in Philippine peso. Spent in America, that could hardly meet the bill; in the Philippines, there’s enough for enjoyment after the bill.

What concerns the Arroyo government – as well as past governments – has for Filipino retirees is most saddening to know. The GSIS and SSS funds are invested to earn and are in fact earning big profit. But the pensions of retirees are not increased to keep up with inflation.

About five years ago, GSIS money was used to buy a Luna painting for P14 million but there was no money to increase the pensions of GSIS retirees. GSIS and SSS money are used to bail out losing companies of businessmen close to the President. Joseph Estrada in his short stint in Malacañang did that, earning a commission of P89 million.

Retirees’ Needs

The needs of the retirees are not very much: money for decent living and for health care. If they are given a just share of the earnings of the retirement funds to which they contributed part of their salaries, their pensions could be bigger. To rub in the injustice, they see top officials of GSIS and SSS earning by the millions and retiring with millions.

For health care, they need subsidized medicines. Retirees who are members of senior citizens clubs can buy medicines at 20 percent discount with doctor’s prescription; but not if they buy over the counter on their own. Some drugstores refuse to give the 20 percent discount. And with the E-Vat, the effective discount has been reduced to 8 percent.

Retirees enjoy free membership in Philippine Health Insurance Corporation. But the coverage is partial and can be enjoyed only when they are sick and confined in accredited hospitals. Who likes getting sick just to avail of partial coverage?

Unless they are among the poor Filipinos given free Philhealth cards by the government or through courtesy of politicians during election time, non-retiree senior citizens don’t have health insurance. But such membership is for one year only and may not be renewed by the government or by the politician-benefactor pending the next election.

Not for Filipinos

This rubs in the unkindest thought: The best in the Philippines are not for ordinary Filipinos but for the elite and the foreigners. While Johnny and Mac feast, Juan dela Cruz longingly wait for the crumbs to fall his way.

The government spends billions of pesos from the taxes of Juan dela Cruzes or from loans to be paid by the same taxes to build the finest infrastructures. For whom? For the Juan dela Cruzes? No! For the investors, elite Filipinos and foreigners, to expand their businesses. Poor Juan dela Cruzes provide cheap labor and consumers market.

The Lumads in Mindanao, among the poorest of the poor Juan dela Cruzes, are squatters in their own ancestral domains. Even if portions of these domains are titled to them, Lumads are not assisted to develop their lands. Instead their lands are included in leases to multi-national mining corporations and they may not be qualified for employment by these corporations.

Our beaches and other resorts are developed for foreigners and the Filipino elite. President Arroyo emphasizes the teaching of English to make Filipinos most competitive in foreign employment markets. Many of our best doctors, nurses and other professionals are not for the Philippines but for foreign lands – not by design but by force of circumstances.

This is being cynical. But the roots of this cynicism are real; they can fill volumes.

To the thousands of poor retirees, their remaining years are worth living and enjoying. With patience, they just stretch their meager pensions and whatever charity comes their way. Never mind if the concern for their health care is nil compared to that for foreigners.

There’s no sense to dampen the few remaining years with hopelessness even if … really, what hope is there in the western horizon? But for those who may lapse to despair, don’t commit suicide. I doubt if President Arroyo will rue the suicide of any poor retiree as she “did” on learning of the poverty-driven suicide of poor 12-year-old Mariannet in Maa, Davao City.

To be honest about it – and most likely the joke is cynical – who cares if all poor retirees commit suicide? They are no longer productive like they were in their prime. They are burdens to the GSIS and SSS.

The poor retirees who can hardly – or cannot – make ends meet with their no longer stretchable meager pensions under the contradicting circumstance of a “a fast growing economy and rising prices” fittingly belong to the “mga sawing palad” (the unfortunates) of this country which “will soon be in the ranks of the First World”.

("Comment" is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz' column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards recently honored Mr. Diaz with a "Lifetime Achievement Award" for his "commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate." You can reach him at [email protected])

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