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UHC can be implemented sans tobacco excise — senators

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By Hannah Torregoza

Senate leaders are confident that the Universal Health Care (UHC) can still be fully implemented even without fresh revenues from higher excise tobacco tax.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III expressed belief there was enough budget under the General Appropriations Act (GAA) for the initial implementation of the UHC while Congress continues to look for other sources of funds to sustain its future implementation.

Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III gestures after elected as a newly Senate President at Senate Building in Pasay city, May 21,2018.(Czar Dancel)

Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III (Czar Dancel / MANILA BULLETIN)

“Let us put it this way: Hindi imperative na siya ay mapasa para lang mapatupad ang Universal Health Care packageng gobyerno. Mapapatupad yung Universal Health Care even if we are not able to pass it in the 17th Congress, (It’s not imperative that we pass it just to implement the UHC package of the government. It can be implemented even if we are not able to pass it in the 17th Congress),” Sotto stressed.

The UHC bill, once a law, will grant all Filipinos immediate eligibility for and access to health care. The program entails P257-billion on its first year of implementation.

Department of Finance and Health (DOF, DOH) officials are lobbying for higher excise on tobacco to fund the UHC’s implementation plus, curb the number of smokers in the country.

But the Senate has yet to pass the measure even after a series of committee hearings have been conducted before they went on recess last February 8.

Sen. Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara, chair of the Senate ways and means panel, which is hearing the bill, said the Senate will take up the measure once it resumes sessions in May.

Angara earlier said there was already an agreement “in principle to increase the excise tax on tobacco products in order to raise funds for the Universal Health Care bill and substantially reduce the smoking prevalence among the youth.”

But he disclosed “there is no consensus yet on the final tax rate.”

Even Sen. Joseph Victor “JV” Ejercito, chair of the Senate committee on health and demography, conceded that funds remain adequate to ensure the smooth implementation of the UHC.

“There will be funds available for UHC,” said Ejercito, who is pushing for a P90 additional tax per pack for cigarettes, in a recent radio interview.

Ejercito said the 2019 General Appropriations Act and funds coming from Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) and Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) will ensure funding for the UHC in its two years of implementation.

Ejercito also said the additional P18-billion “savings” that were discovered during the Senate budget deliberations of the proposed 2019 national budget will further boost the UHC program.

“To the tobacco industry, don’t think we are charging everything from you. We will find the sweet spot. We do not want to kill the industry. We understand that hundreds of thousands depend on the industry for the livelihood,” Ejercito said during previous hearings on the measure.

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