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OFWs get mixed signals on new and jacked-up PhilHealth fees

17 January 2020

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Campaigners against excessive government exactions at Chater Road.

By The SUN

Are the new and substantially higher PhilHealth contributions mandated for all overseas Filipino workers already being collected?

The answer from most OFWs in Hong Kong, whether newly arrived or longtimers, is no, as they say they have been asked to still pay the old annual rate of Php2,400.

However, at least one OFW working as a driver here disputes this, saying she was charged the maximum rate of Php21,600 when she asked staff at a PhilHealth office in Manila to compute what she was supposed to pay.

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Sheryl dela Rosa told leaders of the group Rise Against State Exactions, or Rage, that she declared her monthly salary as required by law, as HK$9,000 (or roughly Php58,000). But the PhilHealth staff added to this her monthly food allowance of $1,121, pushing her monthly income to more than Php60,000 a month, the income ceiling for this year’s premium.

Rage co-founder Dolores Balladares-Pelaez, who also chairs United Filipinos in Hong Kong, said Dela Rosa, will speak at the next protest scheduled this Sunday, Jan. 19, against the mandatory levies on OFWs.

All other OFWs who have just paid their PhilHealth contributions say, however, that they are still being charged as before, which is Php2,400 for each year of membership. A survey of about 40,000 members of the online group Domestic Workers Corner showed everyone who has just paid for the Philippine health insurance was still charged the old fee.

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According to Merlinda Mercado, marketing manager of Metrobank Hong Kong, an authorized collecting agent for PhilHealth, the premium table in their data base has not been replaced, so they still collect the old fee.

Even those who arrived in Hong Kong since the start of the year, when the new premiums were set to take effect, say they were still made to pay only Php2,400.

But Balladares says this does not mean that the new premiums mandated for all OFWs, with corresponding penalties in case of non-payment, won’t be implemented any time soon. The fact that one OFW in Hong Kong has already been made to pay the premium based on the new guidelines shows that PhilHealth is determined to ensure compliance.

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The confusion could be traced to the failure, or refusal, of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, to act as collecting agent for PhilHealth, by requiring premium payments for the national health insurance as a condition for the issuance of the overseas employment certificate (OEC).

While Republic Act 11223 or the Universal Health Care Law signed into law on Feb 20, 2019 provides that migrant workers be among direct contributors to the PhilHealth fund, it did not link their payments to the issuance of OECs.

However, the Implementing Rules and Regulations of the law which were crafted by the Department of Health and PhilHealth and deemed to have taken effect on Dec 7 last year, made POEA a partner in collecting the new premiums.

Sec 10.2.6 of the IRR says, “POEA shall ensure that land-based OFWs, whether new hires or returning, pay their premiums prior to the issuance of the OEC.”

The IRR also made members who fail or refuse to pay premiums based on the existing schedule, along with interest of 1.5% per month, liable to pay a penalty of Php50,000 for each violation, and suspension of their PhilHealth benefits for not less than three months.

An NGO leader privy to the negotiations between the two agencies says, however, that POEA refuses to abide by such an undertaking as it detracts from its main task of regulating employment agencies and keeping track of all OFWs abroad.

Attaching the OEC to any premium payments, be it for PhilHealth, Social Security System, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration or any other government agencies, will also cause added burden to the Philippine Overseas Labor Office, which is already grappling with staff shortage and many other problems.

Polo officer-in-charge Antonio Villafuerte has confirmed that they have yet to receive instructions from the head office to make updated PhilHealth premium payments a requirement for issuing the OEC, or processing new contracts.

“As of the moment we haven’t received any order,” said Villafuerte in reply to a text query. “I’ll let you know in case meron.”

The apparent failure of PhilHealth to compel OFWs to pay the higher premiums as provided by RA 11233 has emboldened some pro-government supporters to accuse Rage and other critics of the new law of spreading false information.

In Chater on Jan 12, a man shouted during a forum on the new fees that the driver who claimed to have been charged more than Php21,000 was lying.

Later, another rabid supporter of President Rodrigo Duterte approached a desk set up to gather signatures against the new government charges and told fellow OFWs not to sign because the group behind the campaign were anti-government.

She lingered awhile saying it is not true that a worker can’t leave Manila if she does not pay the new premium. She retreated only after a shouting match with the campaigners.

Balladares says the campaign against the mandatory fees should continue despite signs the government is having a difficulty enforcing them.

“ Three years ago ay nagawa nating mapigilan ang pagtaas ng PhilHealth premium so meron na tayong puwedeng halawan ng karanasan. Ang kailangan lang natin sa ngayon ay magsalita, ang kailangan natin mag-ingay, ang kailangan natin magpakita ng puwersa, ng lakas na tayong mga migrante dito sa HK ay hindi pumapayag na tayo ay kotongan, na tayo ay holdapin ng kasalukuyang gobyerno,” she said in a statement.

“ Marami na tayong naiko-contribute sa ekonomiya ng Pilipinas, at sa halip na tulungan tayo sa ating mga problema, ang isinalubong sa atin sa bagong taon ay mga dagdag bayarin at mandatory pa eto. So habang meron pa tayong panahon, asahan namin kayo na makasama sa kilos protesta sa susunod na lingo, Dec 19, 11am.”
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