It cannot be helped that when one talks about ageing and the elderly, matters involving health are always included. Republic Act No. 9994 otherwise known as the Expanded Senior Citizens Act of 2010 is the third version of the senior citizens law. Since the first senior citizens act, RA 7432 and its successor RA 9257, the Philippine government has continuously sought to expand elderly benefits and privileges, and address various ageing issues especially those related to health concerns.

Guided by the national sectoral plan, the 5-year Philippine Plan of Action for Senior Citizens (PPASC) which in turn was anchored on international instruments such as the Madrid Plan of Action, the Macau Programme of Action as well as the Shanghai Implementation Strategy, a major area of concern focuses on advancing the health and well-being of Filipino seniors.

As such, one of the most expanded provisions of the RA9994 refers to medical benefits and health privileges of Pinoy senior citizens. While previously the most availed of discounted purchase pertained to drugs and medicines, under RA9994, the 20% senior citizens discount now applies to the discounted purchases of influenza and pneumonia vaccines for seniors. More importantly, the 20% SC discount likewise applies to essential medical supplies, devices, accessories and equipment used by seniors such as geriatric diapers, glucometers, blood pressure apparatus, wheelchairs, and walkers. Thus, it has been emphasized that commonly used assistive devices such as eyeglasses, hearing aids, and even dentures are also covered by the SC discount.

These major additions were brought about by relevant researches and studies from partners in the academe which looked into issues of health and economics affecting Filipino elderly. As such, many details were also clarified through active policy-making and coordination by the National Coordinating and Monitoring Board (NCMB). Chaired by the Department of Social Welfare and Development, the NCMB Secretariat regularly communicated and coordinated with the proper government agencies like the Department of Health (DOH), the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) formerly known as the Bureau of Food and Drugs (BFAD). Now, it has been declared that some doctor-prescribed vitamins and minerals used to treat deteriorating health conditions of the elderly must be discounted just like many maintenance drugs.

Another area which was greatly improved is on hospitalization benefits of seniors. Previously, this aspect was governed by the DOH through various issuances detailing computed discounts for room rates, laboratory and diagnostic tests, drugs and medicines, and even the professional fees of attending physicians. The new DOH guidelines, namely DOH Administrative Order No. 2012-0007, Series of 2012 now applies the 20% discount and the applicable 12%VAT exemption to the TOTAL hospitalization billing. Moreover, the separate availment of PhilHealth coverage has been institutionalized under the new rules. Seniors can get both their 20% SC discount and PhilHealth benefits during hospitalization.

It is also quite fortunate that the PhilHealth has been quite proactive and has been updating their rules and issuing relevant guidelines to facilitate availment of benefits especially for senior citizens. Among its improved programs and services are the “discounted” vaccines for seniors at selected Philhealth-accredited government hospitals to avoid affliction with influenza and pneumonia. Meanwhile, their “Lifetime Membership” program allows retirees and seniors to complete payment of a minimum number of months for automatic PhilHealth coverage which shall remain valid and in-effect until the senior eventually gets deceased. On the other hand, the “sponsored” program for indigent senior citizens is specifically mandated under the Mandatory Philhealth Coverage provisions of RA9994 and is being implemented in coordination with the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s National Household Targeting System (DSWD-NHTS). This same database of identified indigent senior citizens has also been utilized by the DOH as the basis for their FREE influenza and pneumonia vaccines program.

And speaking of particular benefits targeting indigent senior citizens, the Social Pension Program providing a monthly stipend of P500 has been found to make such an impact in improving the quality of life of poor elderly folk. Families report that they no longer feel so burdened caring for ageing parents or relatives because of this small allowance which helps with the family’s finances. The seniors themselves say they use the money they receive to buy their maintenance drugs, go for medical check-ups, or buy some food items like milk or rice. Evidently, this ultimately redounds to improved health and well-being of senior citizens.

Other significant health or medical-related provisions under RA9994 is the establishment of a geriatric ward in every government hospital, or at the very least a special unit reserved for sick senior citizens in all medical facilities. Already there is the Eva Macapagal National Center for Geriatric Health (NCGH) located near Malacanang which specializes in geriatric care and is equipped with state-of-the art facilities and equipment. Meanwhile, a comprehensive and integrated national health program for senior citizens must also be developed by the DOH as expressly provided for under RA 9994.  Hence, their current program for “active ageing” includes the conduct of regular “fitness camps” for elderly government employees and soon-to-be retirees.

Admittedly, there is still much to be desired for a uniform and effective implementation of RA9994. Even with greater efforts from the concerned government agencies, the cooperation of the private sector is still essential. Thus, dialogues with the business establishments and appropriate orientations/trainings to familiarize them with relevant guidelines must also be encouraged.

The same goes for the senior citizens themselves; they must be given special lectures and capability-building sessions to inform them of their rights and privileges under RA9994, and how they can avail of these benefits and privileges properly and reasonably.

Lastly, existing mechanisms and institutional arrangements like the establishment of Office of Senior Citizens Affairs (OSCA) in every city or municipality, the active engagements and participation of Regional Coordinating and Monitoring Boards (RCMBs) and Regional Inter-Agency Committee for Senior Citizens (RIASC) must be strengthened and/or improved on to ensure proper monitoring and implementation.