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Running healthy for the Senate

OF the 37 Senate seat-seekers for the 2007 mid-term elections, 11 are running healthy—that is, they have included public health among their legislative concerns. The rest can be labeled “unhealthy.”

With P35,000 in monthly paycheck, about a million pesos a month to pay for support staff and some P200 million in pork barrel funds per year, a stint at the Senate ought to be an enriching experience for any hopeful bet lucky enough to win in this year’s senatorial race. Tempting, such largesse of pelf and power.

Thus, 79 Senate hopefuls—several of them were jobless—showed up like symptoms of a disease at the Commission on Elections to be listed up as official candidates; 42 were dropped from the Comelec list, deemed as nuisance candidates. Taxpayers can now sift a dozen among 37 remnants—they come from a mixed bag of 13 political parties, each vowing to lessen maybe wipe out poverty, combat graft and corruption, and, as most pre-poll campaign sound bites go, even make your wishes come true by way of legislation.

Two earlier opinion surveys showed that most voters could only muster eight names even from a list of 64 likely candidates for the Senate. That means majority of the 50 million voters will leave empty four slots in the official ballot that calls for 12 lawmakers in Congress’ upper chamber. That may also mean that despite a heap of hopefuls to choose from, there’s not too many that people can rely on as up to the task of lawmakers.

Lesser chaff can be winnowed off edible grain if voters focus on the platforms these aspiring Senate workhorses, dark horses, and plain donkeys are neighing out. Popularity and personality can be ignored to lend credence to a Sufi saying: “The true sign of intelligence is knowing what things to ignore.”

Pore over the list of legislative tasks they have set to tackle once elected. Those tasks ought to be a measure of their competence, probably earnest sincerity to hammer out meaningful change for the nation.

So what’s their uptake on public health? The state of people’s health can point up programs of governance that are already in place— from maternal and child care programs that curb infant mortality to outreach schemes that instill sound nutrition, hygiene and quality of life. The state of public health can also point to soundness of policies being implemented to better livelihood and incomes, food security including democratized access to education, health care and other services.

Unfortunately, public health is doled out a pittance 1% of the national government’s yearly budget— or one centavo for health for every peso earmarked for government spending.

Rues Kapatiran senatorial candidate Dr. Martin Bautista: “How can you expect us to compete in a global market when you have skinny people, sick people, children who don't get vaccines? And right now we're not preparing the next generation well enough because we're not thinking of the future. As I said, you have to make painful choices and think of the future.”

With public health as yardstick of sorts, chaff can be separated from grain. Among 37 senatorial aspirants, 11 chose to include public health measures in their to-do tasks in the Senate. Five of them are from the Genuine Opposition, four are from Team Unity, and two from Kapatiran. Three are senators seeking reelection; two are from the House of Representatives out for an upgrade; one is an extant provincial governor; five are political neophytes that include a popular actor, a school administrator, an incarcerated rebel soldier, a physician, and a lawyer-broadcaster.

The most daring among the 11: Senate seat-seeker Sonia M. Roco and Sen. Panfilo Lacson are likely to draw fire and lesser votes from so-called Catolico cerrados. Roco and Lacson are batting for population management (read: family planning)—and die-hard Catholics have shot down every attempt of policy-makers and lawmakers to craft any decent program on women’s reproductive rights. They will likely level their guns on Roco and Lacson.

Sen. Lacson ties in population management with poverty alleviation in terse terms: “A family of two or three can better feed that family compared to a family of 10 given the same resources.”

The healthy candidates with their uptake on public health:

Sen. Edgardo Angara authored the Magna Carta for Public Health Workers, the Generic Drugs Act, the Breastfeeding Act of 1992, the Nursing Act and the Philippine Health Insurance law.

He is batting for a P5-billion allocation for barangay health centers to sustain delivery of health care at the grassroots, and expanded Philhealth coverage for senior citizens.

He wants additional compensation and incentives for the country’s employed doctors, nurses, midwives, dentists, technicians, nutritionists, therapists, aides and other health workers in hospitals, barangay health centers and health care units in rural and urban areas.

He also wants in place a national program on mental health education and awareness.

Dr. Martin Bautista: “I am all for advocating natural family planning which is not only safe, it is also effective. Unfortunately, it is also the most expensive. Why? Because you need to educate all these couples intensively. It’s not only a woman that you have to educate about natural family planning, it’s both. It’s the couple you have to educate.”

Rep. Allan Peter Cayetano lists health and education as top priorities in his legislative agenda.

Rep. Francis Joseph Escudero seeks to take up health programs for the poor and elderly: “Pagkilala sa karapatang makapagpagamot at gumaling sa anumang karamdaman lalung-lalo na ang mga mahihirap at mga may edad.”

Sen. Panfilo Lacson envisions affordable, quality health care as a right not a privilege. He has tasked himself to “support policies and legislation to provide citizens easier access to affordable and appropriate health care, including cheaper and quality medicines.

“Seek the government's commitment to help improve the quality of health education, the system of licensure of health professionals and monitoring of ethical practices in the health industry/sector.

“Support initiatives allocating more funds for pro-poor health programs including anti-TB and the expanded immunization program.”

Zambales Gov. Vicente Magsaysay is eyeing to “modernize health system and empower the local governments to enhance basic health care services as much needed in the purok level.”

Award-winning movie actor Cesar Montano includes public health in his list of legislative tasks.

Sen. Ralph Recto is batting for a bigger allocation for health services of the Education department as there is chronic lack of nurses, doctors and dentists to attend to 17.6 million public school students: “We only have 86 public high school dentists nationwide. We’ve got more presidential assistants and advisers in the Palace than dentists in high schools.”

The DepEd budget for dental care in 2005 was P9 million which “translates to a per student budget of 50 centavos. The cost of filling caries or extracting a tooth is P50. That P0.50 is not even enough to buy a cotton ball,” he cites.

School administrator and seasoned teacher Sonia M. Roco, widow of the late Sen. Raul Roco has included in her platform women's rights, health and population control. Reports have it she is not concerned with how she is faring in the survey rankings and would still put to work her advocacy even if she is not elected.

Lawyer-broadcaster Adrian Sison wants to draw up a debt-for-migrant health worker policy: “Bawat doctor or nurse na umaalis ng Pilipinas, may formula tayo na pambayad ng utang doon sa bansa na ‘yon na kumuha, para bumaba ang external debt, dahil ang kapalit noon e tao, buhay ng tao.“

Detained rebel suspect Navy Lt. Senior Grade Antonio Trillanes IV includes health and social services in his campaign platform.

And those are your 11 Senate seat-seekers who have fitted out their campaign platforms with public health as a priority worth working for.

With as much resources as about a million pesos a month to pay for support personnel— certain lawmakers don’t bother hiring such staff but bother to collect the funds for staff salaries—plus P200 million per year in greasy pork barrel, the least a taxpayer expects of an elected lawmaker is to carry out the usual medical/dental missions that can chomp as much as P50,000 a pop as token gesture for the people’s health.


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