Speech before the Philippine Dental Association

Philippine International Convention Center

Among the traits Filipinos are known for is our ability to wear a smile even in our most trying times – to stand back on our feet even after a disaster, and recover from any adversity.

Today is yet another privilege for me. Not only have my meetings with the Philippine Dental Association been most delightful; it is always pleasant to have an audience with professionals who make possible Filipinos’ pride in their wide, healthy smiles that reflect a genuinely good state of oral wellness.

Quite a decade has passed since we first worked together, but it only seems like yesterday.

We shared pride in the passage of the Philippine Dental Act in 2007, a landmark legislation in healthcare sector that provides for the regulation of the practice of dentistry. This ensures continuing professional development, and fosters a competent and globally-competitive industry.

I also had the pleasure of speaking before the members and officers of the PDA in your 2009 mid-year session held at Supreme Hotel, Baguio City in March 7, 2009. It was a quite memorable event, not only because it was then my first time to present my anti-corruption advocacy video; but also because it is not everyday that I see so many smiling faces with pearly white teeth.

How truly time flies!

Yet again, we cannot ignore the fact that after all these years, many still frown upon the state of oral health in the country. Statistics showed that 7 out of the 10 Filipinos have never been to a dentist.

Poor oral health has become a perennial problem that mostly affects the underprivileged and the poor. Sadly, proper dental care has become a luxury for most of our countrymen.

Time and again, scarce resources allotted for dental healthcare prove that the government fails to address this problem.

For 2017, we found no specific budget item for dental health programs. Rather, only two items from the 2017 GAA under DOH budget provide for procurement of “dental supplies”. First is the Special Provision No. 11 where an amount of P17,943,687 may be used to procure medical and dental supplies, among many others, for distribution in government public health care facilities. The second refers to the P164,158,000 for National Pharmaceutical Policy Development program including the provision of drugs and medicines, medical and dental supplies to make affordable quality drugs available. Both items provide neither specific budget nor targets for improving dental health.

This tells so much of our healthcare sector, and the very little attention it has been unfairly accorded with.

The fact is, oral health should not be separated from one’s overall health and hygiene. These are interdependent subjects — one is a reflection of another. This goes without saying that dentists, parents, educators and policymakers have shared responsibility to resolve the dismal state of oral health in the country to demonstrate that we have indeed quality health care.

The passage of Philippine Dental Act shows that civil society and lawmakers can act on this shared responsibility to create meaningful laws that benefit all.

Yet, there is still a long way to go.

While there have been extraordinary medical advancements, better techniques and better equipment, most of these advancements never reach millions of Filipinos. In health care alone, the government is still remiss in delivering three crucial elements of health services to the poor: accessibility, affordability and quality.

We then ask– why is this so?

For years, I have been an advocate of transparency and accountability in public service — the very fundamentals of good governance. This marks my long-standing advocacy against various forms of corruption particularly the Pork Barrel system in our public institutions.

Many of you share disapproving look with the sound of pork; I share the same distinct displeasure. In my many interviews and speeches, I have been singling out this as the culprit of our plight as a nation for the very reason that this corrupt system had been shortchanging millions of Filipinos who suffer from half-baked, even ghost projects.

Under the pork barrel system, the government perpetuates corruption, which effectively diverts the resources of government and denies the people of the basic services they need — from water sanitation, to school buildings to health care centers.

Hence, while pork barrel was called the Priority Development Assistance Fund, the irony is that there is no supposed development, especially in the far-flung communities of the country.

But we should not simply throw money at the problem.

For this year, the approved national budget has a total amount of a whopping 3.35 trillion pesos–the highest that has been proposed and approved by any administration so far. The Congress capped off 2016 by passing 2017 General Appropriations Act or Republic Act 10924 which was subsequently signed by no less than President Rodrigo Duterte.

Not only does this huge amount represent the financial plan of the Duterte administration, but more importantly, this represents the hard-earned money of our taxpayers, including mine and yours.

Over the course of scrutinizing thousands of pages of the budget books, the National Expenditure Program submitted by the President, the General Appropriations Bill and ultimately, the General Appropriations Law, I could tell you forthrightly that Pork Barrel is very much alive and kicking.

It did not take long for us to see that Legislators, in cahoots with those in the Executive, ingeniously come up with different ways to hide their pork insertions.

For one, to put a veil on their post-enactment participation which was one of the reasons that ruled pork barrel unconstitutional, the legislators now identify their projects prior to submission of the budget to Congress, during the budget deliberations and even during the bicameral conference. These are being done without any communication or records.

Another dubious scheme we saw was the reduction of some P8.3 billion from the ARMM budget and the transfer of such amount to the budget of the Department of Public Works and Highways, but the implementation of the infrastructure projects would remain in the ARMM.

I strongly opposed this move because it is a clear violation of Republic Act 9054 or the Organic Act for ARMM which provides that “funds for infrastructure in the autonomous region allocated by the central government or national government shall be appropriated through a Regional Assembly Public Works Act” (Section 20, Article VI) Even more, it states that without the approval of the ARMM’s Regional Assembly, “ no public works funds allocated by the central government or national government for the Regional Government or allocated by the Regional Government from its own revenues may be disbursed, distributed, realigned, or used in any manner.”

More importantly, said projects, which are identified by 8 District Representatives from ARMM, infringe the Supreme Court ruling on the unconstitutionality of PDAF (BELGICA vs. EXECUTIVE SECRETARY G.R. No. 208566 November 19, 2013) as DBM allows legislators to intervene during the budget process by giving them a stake in the affairs of budget identification. As a result, DBM dilutes the effectiveness of congressional oversight, an aspect of governance they may be called to monitor and scrutinize.

Greed really sees no bound — not even the stark benefits should the said funds, or even just a portion of it, were realigned to least prioritized services such as dental health care.

The present administration has trumpeted its battle cry, “Change is coming”.

True enough, the Filipino public is presently enduring massive changes in the country’s all-out-war against criminality and illegal drugs. But you and I would agree that the illegal drug crackdown should not be the be-all and end-all of the government’s efforts for this country.

Hence, I cannot help but ask– has change really come in the management of public monies? Have we truly abolished pork barrel? I have yet to be convinced.

Somebody once asked me about the hardest part about this battle.

I tell you, the most difficult part is being alone – that I am just one voice against too many. That despite the cases filed against a number of legislators, they still have no compunction. They seem not to learn from the bitter lessons of the past.

I share with you our story today because I believe that the health sector bears the brunt of corruption the most; that you represent a beleaguered dental profession, in the same unfortunate state as other civilian sectors; that you demand attention and resources to advance your sector’s interest; and that you share the same hopes as I do that institutional corruption is not a matter-of-course, but a matter to end, never to revive again.

With that, I wish you a meaningful event. Thank you and good day.

Mabuhay ang Philippine Dental Association!