January - February 2008
Mad over money

Surviving sans a financial safety net

EVERY NOW and then representatives of pre-need companies offer me insurance packages for my parents and me. Name it, they’ve tried to sell it to me — life and accident insurance plans, health plans, even memorial plans. But I always say no. It’s not that I’m not interested; I simply don’t have the extra money to pay for the premiums. Whatever I make as a media worker and from occasional writing and editing projects is just enough for my parents’ and my own daily needs. Which is why many view my family’s ability to hurdle major medical emergencies as nothing short of miraculous.

Like many Filipinos, my family lacks a financial security net. We are not rich. We do not own our home. In the early 1990s, we had to sell our house in Laguna because Papa became jobless for a long time; the 1991 Gulf War forced him and other Filipino workers to leave their lucrative jobs there and head back to the Philippines. Yet while he was able to work abroad again, and my brother and I have held jobs for years, none of us has been able to afford to get sick.

That remains true to this day. Still, we have also found out that our family can survive serious health crises through a combination of sheer luck, audacity, an unwavering faith in both God and the innate goodness in other people — and perhaps the career path I chose.

I cite the last reason because honestly, it was through recommendations and tips from media colleagues that I was able to get help from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office or PCSO and the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation for one of our family’s latest medical emergencies. They turned out to be the main source of support for us. Of course, even if I weren’t a journalist, I would probably have approached these agencies anyway. But I would surely have had to go through the frustrating and painstaking process that most other Filipinos experience had I not known whom to seek there in the first place. I concede, the saying “it matters whom you know” applies here.

I also say luck because during my older brother’s hospital confinement last year, after he had a heart attack at the age of 37, I got to know several families, mostly poorer and lesser in opportunities than us, who really had no idea where they would be able to get the money to pay for their rising medical expenses.

Indeed, my greatest joy these days is that even as the medical bills (for drugs and check-ups) keep on coming, my family is still complete and with me as we await the coming of my child, a boy whom my partner and I plan to call Rafael — which means God has healed — when he is born in April.

A MOTHER and her new-born being treated at a government hospital. [PCIJ file photo]

TO THINK that just last February, my sister-in-law Kate and I were being told by doctors at the Philippine Heart Center in Quezon City to prepare at least P300,000 because my Kuya Ronnie’s heart problems may need major procedures to correct. They also said we could not afford to waste any time because a second heart attack could be fatal.

But where to get the money? Kuya was then a contractual call center agent while his wife worked as an engineer in a fabric company. While he was a member of the Social Security System (SSS) and the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth), these were not enough to cover the looming expenses. Neither he nor his wife had any other insurance plan to rely on, and had counted only on their combined monthly salaries of P25,000 for their everyday needs, as well as any emergency that may arise. Whenever they could, they also put something away for their two-year-old daughter Jesi’s education.

Meanwhile, I was already helping take care of our parents. While Papa had a retirement pension from the SSS, this came to only P3,500 a month, and went mostly to buy groceries. Sometimes, Mama and Papa would treat themselves to a movie or two or eat in a fastfood chain. I had volunteered to pay for the rent of their apartment in Bulacan, as well as for Mama’s maintenance medicines for her heart and blood pressure problems (she had a heart bypass in 2000).

Papa’s stint overseas had not meant a bonanza for us. When the modest business he set up after he returned home for good failed in 2005 — after just several months of operation — he lost most of what he had earned all those years toiling in a foreign country.

It’s a good thing both my Kuya Ronnie and I already had jobs when that happened. Then again, we had been working long before that. My brother even had to forego college to help out, while I managed to stay in school and earn a degree even as I also did my bit to contribute to the family’s finances.

Kuya Ronnie eventually finished a two-year computer course. I took up journalism in the University in the Philippines. Papa is a mechanical engineer while Mama has a degree in architecture. But all those certificates and degrees have not necessarily translated into a financially secure future — or present, even.

In fact, before we transferred Kuya from our town hospital in Bulacan to the Heart Center, Mama and I had to pawn her pieces of jewelry, raising about P16,000. I thought that was a good enough buffer as we looked for other sources of money, but there were the doctors, talking about hundreds of thousands of pesos more. Money or no money, though, we were all determined that Kuya Ronnie would have whatever medicine, whatever treatment he needed and see his little girl grow up.

Two hours after he was admitted into the Heart Center, Kuya had angioplasty for two of his three blocked arteries. By day four of his confinement, our hospital bill was already running close to P400,000. All in all he was at the Heart Center for 23 days, and our bill reached nearly P1 million.

I KEEP saying our bill, because in this country, no one really gets sick alone. Not when you have your family. And your friends. I witnessed this during my family’s emergencies and in those of others. At the PCSO, which turned out to be our biggest savior, I met the wife of Kuya’s ICU “neighbor.” Already burning with fever due to fatigue and worry on how she was going to pay her husband’s hospital bills, she had been waiting for hours to have her name called so she could ask for help. Her husband’s bill by then had already reached P300,000. Her only prayer, she said, was that she would walk out of the PCSO building with a guarantee letter in hand that she could give to the Heart Center.

There was also this old woman I met in one of the hospital’s restrooms who told me, a complete stranger, that her granddaughter could not be discharged until they settled her account. Her apo was suffering from a congenital heart disease; the grandmother said their family, who hailed all the way from Negros Occidental, was counting on support from relatives abroad to see them through.

I have to admit that compared to them, we had it fairly easy. But then after he was discharged, Kuya still needed post-hospital care, which had its own set of price tags. There were the maintenance drugs that totaled some P5,000 a month, physical therapy sessions to regain his strength, and occupational and speech therapy sessions to address his expressive aphasia, a condition caused by stroke wherein the individual cannot express himself through speech or writing. My big brother had to study his alphabet and arithmetic all over again, as well as hone his reading and writing skills with the support of a professional occupational therapist.

My sorority sisters and members of our partner-fraternity provided contacts who could help my family pay for all these. Some of my former schoolmates who were working with politicians found ways to provide us with medical assistance through their bosses’ allocations. There were also financial contributions from other friends and relatives here and overseas.

By late August last year, Kuya was well on his way to recovery. And there was another great piece of news: I was going to have a baby! As soon as we learned about my pregnancy, my partner and I began setting aside an amount monthly, not only to prepare for Rafael’s coming, but also so we could move to a bigger place later. I began paying more attention to having up-to-date SSS and PhilHealth payments because claims from these would be helpful during childbirth.

At around this time, however, Papa’s stomachaches began becoming more frequent. A trip to the gastroenterologist resulted in an order for a battery of tests.

From August to December, Papa had to undergo ultrasound, enema, and blood tests, as well as urinalyses, and the more expensive CT scans and colonoscopy. That meant less money for my “baby kitty,” but the doctor had to be certain what was wrong with Papa. The tests cost thousands of pesos, and that was even though Papa availed of his senior citizen’s discount.

IF ONLY the tests showed that all he had was just indigestion. Unfortunately, the colonoscopy indicated colon cancer, and the doctors advised immediate surgery to prevent complications and to arrest the problem at its early stage. The amount needed within weeks: a minimum of P100,000 for the procedure only, excluding professional fees.

But just like in Kuya’s case, a combination of miracle, luck, knowing the right people, and having the right strategies helped us cope with the costs of Papa’s hospitalization and surgery. By then I could even joke that we seemed to be always “blessed” whenever one of us had to be hospitalized. There we were with neither insurance nor any real money, but each time, we received the best medical care that those coming from lower to middle-income families like ours could never imagine receiving.

Actually, seven years before, we had experienced a similar kind of blessing in what could have been one of our darkest hours. Mama had to undergo a triple heart bypass — and despite our lack of money, she was attended to by the same set of doctors who operate on showbiz celebrities, politicians, and business moguls. We later learned that the procedure alone would have cost something like P1.5 million. Yet Mama was asked to pay only P100,000 because a distant relative who happened to be sitting in the (private) hospital’s board intervened on our behalf.

That relative was no longer there when the time came for Papa to have his colon surgery at the same hospital. But we still knew enough people — one of whom was my eldest cousin — who could help Papa get into the hospital’s list of Health Service Program (HSP) beneficiaries. By being included in the list, one gets to avail of procedures that cost way, way below the original price, apart from discount privileges to as high as 30 percent and waived doctors’ fees. HSP also honors discounts for PhilHealth members.

So last December 28, while most people were busy preparing for the New Year, one of the best surgical teams in that private hospital worked on Papa to remove the tumor in his colon. The price: P87,000 for surgery that normally costs as much as P300,000. Aside from instant loans with interest from the respective offices of my sister-in-law and cousin, we paid the bill with part of my “baby kitty,” plus donations and small loans from relatives.

It was my family’s first time to celebrate New Year’s Eve in a hospital, and it was quite a unique experience. We had our Media Noche delivered courtesy of our relatives and enjoyed a safe and smoke-free celebration, which was good for my baby, too. But our best aguinaldo this New Year has been Papa’s quick recovery, as well as his latest biopsy results that indicate no more traces of cancer.

IT WILL take me maybe two more months before I can finish paying off the loans – just in time for Rafael’s arrival. As Papa and Kuya regain their strength, friends and relatives alike continue to marvel over how we were able to pull everything off, considering our situation. I can’t guarantee what worked for us will work for everyone else, but here are some of the ways my family and I used to help us get major medical treatment without much money:

First, we found dignity in asking help from people and groups whom we knew could be potential sources of support. When I prepared our solicitation letter, I wrote it as if I were writing to very close friends and kin. I never missed a detail and told the truth, especially about our financial situation. I myself was surprised with the overwhelming response; people who knew people who knew me — some even based abroad — called me up and gave significant financial help. Some even said that helping us was “cathartic” because they had undergone similar experiences.

Second, I did not hesitate to repeatedly ask for leads from colleagues. As I mentioned earlier, I was able to tap most of the major sources of support for Kuya’s hospitalization by way of tips or endorsements from media friends. This was also how I was also able to get support from political offices, government agencies, and private groups. I mapped every sector: church, media, government, business, foundations, nongovernment organizations, and individuals.

Third, I maintained an orderly case kit that I made available to anyone interested in helping us. In Mama and Kuya’s cases, I made a chronological brief and compiled all their medical records, receipts, endorsements from the barangay and local social welfare offices, and other pertinent data. I compiled these as if I were preparing media kits for a press conference or arranging my documents for a story. I also updated Papa’s records every night while we were at the hospital. Before he underwent surgery, his doctors received a clean and chronological compilation of all his diagnostic test results, including plates, frames, slides, and a videotape of his colonoscopy.

Fourth, we never stopped believing in the capacity of man to do good or to “pay it forward.” Until now, I am still amazed that I was able to raise around P150,000 from chip-ins alone from kin, friends, and even practical strangers for Kuya. And that’s apart from what my sister-in-law was able to raise from contributions of her relatives and friends.

Lastly, we never ran out of faith in the Power greater than us. It may be a cliché, but I know there was a reason why these trials were given to us, and that He would never abandon us.

I really hope other families who have to undergo such crises would be as fortunate as we have been. Money may be vital to get the best treatment in this country, but surely, we can also help make miracles – for ourselves and for others.