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Pope Francis’ Call for Synodality in the Philippine Context, Final Part

“Healthcare is not a luxury, it is a right that belongs to everyone,” said Pope Francis last year to a group of healthcare professionals. “A world that rejects the sick, that does not assist those who cannot afford care, is a cynical world with no future.” The pope’s view deeply reflects Jesus Christ’s healing and compassionate ministry. Pope John Paull II reiterated in his apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in Oceania (Church in Oceania), that Catholic health care is “a messianic mission of mercy, of healing and forgiveness.

The newly minted Archbishop of Caceres, Bishop Rex Alarcon is presented with a great opportunity to share the Gospel of St. Luke on Jesus Christ’s healing ministry, “The kingdom of God has come near you.” (Lk 10:1, 8-9). Bicol is the poorest region in Luzon, the second poorest in the country, and the seat of the Metropolitan See, Naga City leads with the highest poverty incidence in the province of Camarines Sur at nearly 30%.

According to the Philippines’ Universal Health Care Law, all Filipinos are entitled to free healthcare under the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation or more popularly called as “PhilHealth.” The Universal Health Care Law in essence, provides the implementing rules for the constitutional provision that mandates healthcare as a human right. In practice, right to health means getting it either through public or private. For those that can afford it, there is plenty of high-quality healthcare available in metropolitan areas.

The rub, however, is that most Filipinos are poor and live in rural areas where access to quality healthcare is much to be desired. Two of the leading causes of death in the Philippines are cardiovascular disease (heart attack) and cancer. Many poor patients in rural areas die without the benefit of even accessing quality healthcare. Most Rural Health Units have inadequate or ill-equipped facilities. In emergent cases, one must go to the city for health sustaining care.

In Naga City, the Bicol Medical Center (BMC) is the main public hospital. It has modern facilities but does not cover all the costs for outpatient visits and in patient care. Hence, out of pocket expenditures still accounts for a significant portion of healthcare spending. Private hospitals are expensive and out of reach for poor Bicolanos.

The most modern private hospital in the city is still Mother Seton Hospital (now Universidad de Sta. Isabel Health Services Department), a Catholic run hospital by the Daughters of Charity and is overseen by the Archbishop of Caceres. It is a teaching and non-profit hospital. From personal experience, healthcare costs there are very expensive and there were ethical issues even involved regarding euthanasia and patient’s right to privacy. The hospital before was derisively called “Money Seton.”

Such, however, is part of the dilemma that not-for-profit Catholic hospitals face because they must make a profit for the company’s survival and future expansion. Mother Seton Hospital in Naga was no exception. Clearly, this hospital does not cater to the poor. Hence, the real value of it is money, even if it strives for the common good. Mother Seton was named after the first American born saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton who was then called Mother Seton.

The pioneering Mother Seton established and grew the membership and reach of the Sisters of Charity, a religious group for women who worked in helping the poor people of North America and beyond its borders. Although she is the patron saint for grieving people, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was credited with healing miracles on poor individuals with severe medical conditions such as cancer. In life, that was her calling.

The challenge for Archbishop Alarcon is how to rise to the occasion and live up to the papal call that Catholic health care is “a messianic mission of mercy, of healing and forgiveness.” The Archdiocese has two hospitals and three dispensaries for urban poor in the city as part of its Social and Charitable Institutions. Those in rural towns and municipalities are wanting from the Archdiocesan healthcare ministries, the reach of Catholic charities to help realize the noble intentions of the country’s universal health care mandate.

Centuries ago, Franciscan missionaries reportedly opened a hospital in Palestina, Pili Camarines Sur. It was called St. James Hospital (also called St. Lazarus). The hospital served the “Indians” as the Conquistadores called them – the Agtas - but because of poor funding and lack of resources, it folded. Several bishops of Caceres attempted to revive it but didn’t prosper. Caceres Bishop Francisco Gainza, with his untiring zeal and piety, according to historical accounts, was able to reopen it on May 12, 1873 – the same month of May that Bishop Alarcon was installed as the 5th Metropolitan Archbishop of Caceres.

The Diocesan Hospital Lazarus in Barangay Palestina now sits in ruins and the legacy of selfless love that the Franciscan missionaries left behind in caring for those with “leprosy” or San Lazaro’s disease, are almost forgotten, if not for the annals of history. The Franciscans were able to subsist along with their patients, from alms and a small subsidy from the local governments.

The good archbishop can revive the legacy of the Franciscans by advocating for more non-profit health care centers, better equipped infirmaries and more providers in rural areas. Instead of getting involved or wading in politics or supporting a particular candidate, the archbishop should put together a group of policy wonks who can come up with tweaks to the existing Universal Health Care Law for the benefit of poor Filipinos.

His voice can provide a powerful impetus for local politicians or lawmakers to bat for increased funding to the health care law so more can benefit from it. Policy proposals should not get into ethical and religious issues like reproductive health (abortion or use of contraceptives), death penalty, in vitro fertilization or other matters that put a Catholic identity stamp on it. It will doom the efforts. Rather, focus on access to affordable and quality healthcare. While a case can be made for religious freedom in the delivery of healthcare, access to it is a more critical issue given the high number of underserved communities.

Diocesan policy wonks can also delve on affordability of private insurance. Health care spending will continue to rise and out of reach for families below the median income. How can we make people or companies do something transformational that addresses the great divide regarding access to quality health care?

Another area that the diocesan healthcare ministry can exert some energy on is tapping the many graduates, alumni (nurses, doctors, and other healthcare professionals) from Catholic schools who benefitted from their Catholic education by joining diocesan regularly scheduled medical missions in the rural areas and not just among the urban poor in the city. Many of them from Manila and abroad come back to the city for school reunions or for the annual Peñafrancia Festival, why not engage them in more meaningful reunions with the poor? Veritas in Caritate, Archbishop Alarcon?


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