FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - March 5, 2019 - 12:00am

The country currently has 19,000 telecommunications towers. The conservative estimate is that we need at least 70,000 to adequately cover the archipelago and deliver data at faster rates. The need to close that gap is urgent.

Our two existing telcos are unveiling facilities capable of handling 5G. This more advanced system, to be used by the next wave of digital technologies, cannot run on the limited towers we have in place.

The designated third major telco player – Mislatel – is committed “to cover 84 percent of the population and bring up the minimum internet average to 27 megabits per second (mbps) for the first year and to 55 mbps for the succeeding year.” Otherwise, they will forfeit the hefty amount they put in as performance guarantee. This, too, will be possible only with sufficient towers handling more intensive data transfers.

All three telcos agree we need as many towers as soon as possible. This is the reason there is now a broad, tripartite alliance in place to get the towers in place.

On the government side, the DICT and the NTC have made clear that the business of constructing the towers will be open to all who wish to participate. The three telcos are, to be sure, building their own towers while supporting the policy of attracting all possible players into the business.

The third party in this alliance is composed of 12 (and counting) companies that have signed MOAs with the DICT to start building the towers. These companies are: ISOC Infrastructure, ISON ECP Tower, HIS Towers, Edotco Group, RT Telecom, China Energy Engineering Corp., Aboitiz Infracapital, MSG Construction, American Towers, Frontier Tower Associates Management, the Phil Tower Consortium (composed of Global Networks, Inc. and JTower Inc.) and JS Cruz Construction and Development Inc.

This is an admirably broad range of domestic and international players. They have come to help build the towers because they realize the demand is pressing.

We should have begun building these towers years ago, guided by the looming technologies on the horizon. Because we have not done that, we are now in a desperate rush to have them.

So much of our future competitiveness depends on rapidly upgrading our digital infrastructure. So much of our economy will soon be dependent on reliable, fast and cheap delivery of large volumes of data.

Now we realize how much damage six years of a do-nothing presidency impaired our economy. We missed building those towers, we have yet to rehabilitate the MRT-3, the LRT-1 and LRT-2 extension projects are seriously delayed, the elevated connector roads are only now being built, and the ro-ro system needs to be rebooted. Our people are suffering greatly because these things were not done earlier.

Fortunately, the DICT appreciates the expediency required to build these towers. That curious proposal to limit tower building to only two players has been roundly rejected. That would have done such extreme damage to our economy’s digital capacity.

Fake benefits

Now that universal health care has been signed into law, it is time to very seriously evaluate our institutional capacity to make this a reality for our people.

PhilHealth, the main agency we rely on to make universal health care a reality is flawed – to put it most kindly. The reason for this is that we have insisted on appointing medical professionals to lead this now vital agency. What PhilHealth needed was a team of financial managers and systems experts with actuarial skills.

Because the agency is flawed, it has become a vulnerable target for those whose motives are less than noble.

Recall that scandal a few years ago where PhilHealth paid an amazing sum for cataract removals. It was clear a syndicate was behind this effort to exaggerate the number of people who needed the surgery.

Last year, PhilHealth paid out a total of P12.69 billion in hospitalization bills for people supposedly stricken with pneumonia. If we go by the standard payments rate, this means that 810,000 members were afflicted (and hospitalized) with pneumonia that year. If this were true, the DOH should have declared a pneumonia epidemic.

COA flagged PhilHealth Regional Office 2 for overpaying P56 million in members’ benefits for the two months of November and December 2017 alone. Imagine what the audit of the whole year would produce.

For the entirety of 2017, PhilHealth reported an operating loss of P4.9 billion. That is a staggering amount.

But COA has computed All Case Rates (ACR) overpayment amounted to 20 percent of the total amount paid out. PhilHealth paid out P114 billion. If the COA estimate is correct, that means the agency released P22.8 billion more than what the claimant hospitals billed. Where did such a large amount go?

The fault, it seems, lies in the ACR payment scheme introduced in 2011. This scheme guarantees specified amounts in benefit claims for hospitalization or surgery among PhilHealth’s 85 million members – regardless of the actual cost involved. This system rewards overbilling and invites fake claims.

With the Universal Health Care Law, PhilHealth will receive additional funds amounting to a fantastic P275 billion to bankroll its expanded role.

Before releasing that large volume of cash, government must make sure PhilHealth fixes its internal processes. An expert team of finance managers, accountants and actuarial scientists must first be sent in to tighten processes and ensure taxpayer money is rightfully spent.

In its present condition, PhilHealth as a public corporation direly needs to be put into the ICU.

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