By Carlo Mercado
With interviews by Rafael Rubio
To Vincent Anthony Tang, it all started with a taxi ride.
It was a hot April afternoon, and Tang – a third year Health Science major – found himself standing in line with some sixty other people outside Trinoma, waiting for a taxi. Finally, after an hour and a half, he was able to get a cab.
“The moment I was in the cab, I thought the agony of waiting had ended, but some ten minutes after getting in, the taxi still had not left which delayed the departure of other taxis behind,” he recounts. “I glanced over to the driver, but before I could complain, I was at a loss of words at the sight before me. His [the driver’s] hands were shaking as he slowly reached for the stick shift and tried, but failed to pull on it. He looked like he was exerting all the energy. I looked at his hand again, and saw blood.”
Tang saw a large cut in the driver’s palm, half of which was still gaping wide while the other half was badly stitched and without the cover of a medical gauze. Out of curiosity, he inquired the driver about the wound and the latter replied that it is a result of an accident. When Tang asked why the driver did not have the cut treated, the former remembered the latter’s response as, “May pera nga ho tayo, pero may mga mas importanteng patutunguhan iyon, katulad ng pagkain at edukasyon. Saka ko na lang problemahin ‘yung sugat na ‘to. Wala naman akong magawa e kundi magtiis.”
Since that day, Tang believed something must be done to put healthcare back to people’s priorities.
The Filipino experience on health
In reality, the ordinary Filipino family would rather spend on other basic necessities than on health-related needs. According to the 2006 Family Income and Expenditure Survey, while greater than half of the typical household budget goes to food, utilities, house rent, and transportation, only a meager 2.9% of the entire expenditures is for medical care.
This is no surprise when one reviews other statistics about the country’s health situation. For example, the prices of medicine here in the Philippines remain prohibitively high with respect to the poor’s ability to pay and compared to drug prices in other countries. In an Inquirer article published last July, consultant Oscar F. Picazo of the Philippine Institute for Development Studies cited a 2009 WHO survey which showed that the typical price of a prescription for an acute illness was P-485 while the monthly cost of drugs for chronic diseases amounted to P-946.
Another thing to consider is the expenditure that accompanies access to health facilities. The average cost of treatment is P-1,872, says the 2008 Philippine National Demographic and Health Survey. That, plus the P-109 spent for transportation. In the same survey, confinement to a clinic or hospital amounts to P-16,802 in average. With high costs of hospitalization and check-up, it is no wonder that 30% Filipinos die without seeing a doctor – a figure close to the country’s poverty incidence. This is something that Health Secretary Enrique T. Ona admitted in a speech delivered in October 2010.
With all these facts and figures, one cannot help but ask: Is there still hope for health?
Reforming society, one community at a time
Yes, says Project LAAN.
“Project LAAN is a youth-led anti-poverty organization whose mission is to advocate quality health care for every Filipino by raising financial resources for health through the use of social media,” explains Tang, currently its Finance Officer. He adds, “The objective of Project LAAN is concise and simple, yet has a overarching reach in terms of fulfilling basic human rights and needs.”
Tang sees the organization, composed mostly of students from the Health Science program of Ateneo de Manila University, as a response to the call of social change.
“All of this was sparked by an innate and common understanding among them (the LAAN team) that merely studying and researching diseases is an insufficient response to the Philippines’ growing health problems,” he says. “Rather, they believed that what was most needed to address the increasing burden of disease in the country was health innovation and entrepreneurship.”
Raise it, Invest it, Prove it – The LAAN Mantra
The main goal of the organization is to raise funds from the private sector to enroll indigent households in the insurance provided by the Philippine Health Insurance Corp., or more commonly known as PhilHealth. For Tang, LAAN is also a social enterprise that follows a business model he calls “RIP It!” Cycle (stands for “R-aise It! I-nvest It! P-rove It!”).
“R-aise It, the money, to continually increase resources for health. I-nvest It, the money, by enrolling families into PhilHealth. And finally, P-rove It by measuring the achievements in health outputs and outcomes such as the availment rates of preventive health services or utilization of PhilHealth hospitalization benefits,” he elaborates.
Project LAAN believes change can happen, one community at a time, when the private sector takes initiative to work together with people from the grassroots in addressing their concerns.
To realize this, the organization plans to start with Brgy. Pansol, a community of 57,000 in Quezon City. Most of the residents here belong to the informal sector of the economy, with 85% of the community getting their income through sari-sari store ownership.
“The organization aims to first establish a stable foundation of logistics and operations in its first community partner which is Brgy. Pansol, and to see how the first ‘RIP It!’ cycle, which started this May and is scheduled to end on May 2013, goes so we can learn from our mistakes and compile our best practices,” says Tang.
Now, why focus on health insurance?
“When President Aquino started out, he plotted the Aquino Health Agenda to then address this [lack of access to proper healthcare] through UHC [universal healthcare],” says Kathleen Yoingco, Project Manager of LAAN and a student of the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health (ASMPH). According to her, “One way of achieving this was through enrollment to our national health insurance program or PhilHealth. By paying premiums regularly, you can avail of several services from PhilHealth.”
She noted, however, that the government does not have enough finances to pay the premiums of the entire population, so “other institutions are invited to help these families access healthcare by sponsoring their premiums”.
With this in mind, Yoingo recalls John Q. Wong, MD, Msc., calling a meeting with some Health Science majors in February 2011 and suggesting the idea of sponsoring PhilHealth coverage to indigent communities. Wong is a clinician, epidemiologist, and faculty member in both the Health Sciences Program and ASMPH. “He is also our very own ‘Google Doc,’ because he enjoys reading up on innovations for health and using Google for everything,” quips Yoingco.
Inspired by Wong’s suggestion, then Health Science undergraduates – which included Yoingco – and some students from ASMPH envisioned an organization to address the inequality in accessing healthcare.
“Alongside this, there is a growing trend for using social media for social change. Merging the two together, then brought about Project LAAN,” Yoingco states.
Social media and social marketing towards social change
Indeed, what separates Project LAAN from other organizations – besides the fact that it highlights health among other concerns – is its utilization of social media tools and social marketing strategies.
The organization has its own Facebook page (see https://www.facebook.com/projectlaan ) and regularly updates its Twitter account (https://twitter.com/ProjectLAAN). Also, Project LAAN maintains a website (at http://www.projectlaan.org/) which is currently under renovation.
To raise funds, the team introduced Tutubank, an innovative way of motivating people to sponsor the PhilHealth coverage of selected families in Brgy. Pansol. The idea was to persuade an individual to make a pledge of saving P-25 a day for the entire month and putting the saved amount in uniquely designed bottles called “Tutubank.” The LAAN team would then collect the Tutubanks and pool the funds to enroll indigent households to PhilHealth. The amount saved in one Tutubank would be enough enough to answer the Philhealth coverage of one family.
The Tutubank, along with LAAN’s umbrella and baller merchandise, completes the organization’s fund-raising activities. The LAAN team also solicits donations from reputable individuals and establishments to increase its resources.
In every new initiative, there would always be challenges. Yoingco acknowledged that members of Project LAAN encountered problems on the onset such as lack of community organizing skills, issues of sustainability, and shortage in full-time volunteers.
Also, most of the people who started the organization have either graduated from Ateneo already or are currently engrossed in medical school. There was a need to transition the initial efforts to a team that has the versality to balance commitment to the organization and academic concerns.
“This was the reason why a team composing mostly of Health Sciences seniors and juniors, and a few sophomores, who either volunteered or were recruited by the team that was working on Project LAAN during the summer of 2011. By July of 2011, a new team was formed and they were ready to tackle the problems facing the fledgling organization in its early execution and implementation phase,” Tang, who was one of those recruited last year, explained.
The challenges faced by the organization and their endeavors to overcome these challenges were not left unrecognized, however. Last March, the Ateneo community lauded the determination of the team to “fight poverty through health” by naming Project LAAN as the “Most Outstanding Project” in the university’s annual Loyola Schools Awards for Leadership and Service.
Better health for a better tomorrow
Armed with persistence and an award to boot, the organization managed to pool enough resources to start the enrollment of Brgy. Pansol residents for their health insurance. Project LAAN has already signed a memorandum agreement with PhilHealth and recently launched a strategic partnership with Simulan Nating Gumawa (SINAG), a non-government organization for good governance and ethical leadership started by members of Barangays Pansol and Loyola Heights.
Together with SINAG, the team was able to identify possible beneficiaries for PhilHealth coverage. Only last month, Project LAAN organized the PhilHealth Fiesta in Brgy. Pansol – a series of activities that ran for three consecutive Saturdays composed of orientation to the benefits covered by PhilHealth and the families’ actual enrollment. When the PhilHealth Fiesta concluded, the LAAN team was able to enroll 100 households.
With the organization halfway in achieving its “RIP It!” Cycle for Brgy. Pansol, Yoingco says LAAN will now focus on improving the health services and its accessibility to the community. “Sana rin, Project LAAN can already show some reports projecting that improving health really does trickle towards other forms of development especially socio-economically,” she adds.
Yoingco hopes that within ten years, Project LAAN will be able to set a track record of helping poor households from different communities get covered by health insurance.
This is a vision Tang also holds on to.
“I envision that someday Project LAAN is able to expand its network of community partners to the whole of Quezon City, then Metro Manila, then Luzon and eventually, the whole of the Philippines. It will take time but with the kind of passionate and driven people I’m working with, I’m sure that we’re on the right track to that dream,” says Tang.
IDEAlism is a section meant to acknowledge the contributions of people – either through the new ideas they espoused or the organizations they started – to social change and to advancements in the field of economics and development.