ENSURING THE WELFARE OF BARANGAY HEALTH WORKERS
Co was once on her way to a medical career, but realized soon enough that her calling was not in becoming a doctor but rather someone who lobbies for health workers’ needs.
By Lawrence Fernandez
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROMEO S. PERALTA, JR.
Barangay Health and Wellness (BHW) Party-list Representative Angelica Natasha Co is blooming where she is planted. And although joining public service was not her intention until the sector she dearly represents asked for representation in the 18th Congress, she now comfortably wears the legislator’s hat.
Co’s journey to serve started when barangay health workers (BHWs) in Bicol asked to be represented in Congress through the party-list system. She was in favor of the proposal, but none of the regional BHW presidents expressed interest in running, claiming that they were already too old and that entering politics was difficult.
“There is anxiety getting into politics. Even if I did not want to, I was forced to run because they needed a representative in Congress. My private life had to stop, and then I joined politics,” Co recalls.
While Co was initially reluctant to join politics, there was no denying that her leadership skills had already been cultivated in her youth. Before she became engaged in ensuring the welfare of around 300,000 BHWs in the country, she had to ensure that every item in their family-owned business was accounted for.
In her younger years, Co had a crash course in management when she was put in charge of their hardware store in Legazpi City, Albay, during weekends. While weekdays were reserved for school, she had to take care of their industrial and construction equipment business on Saturdays and Sundays.
“During weekends, gigisingin ako ng papa ko nang maaga para ako ‘yung magbubukas ng hardware. Maglilinis ako, mag-iinventory ako ng mga pako, ‘yung ganun. At ang sweldo ko niyan, 50 pesos kada araw. ‘Yun ‘yung gagamitin ko pang-snack. So, kung may gusto akong bilhin, doon ko kukunin (My father would wake me up early to open our hardware store. I would clean up and do some inventory of nails. I received a salary of 50 pesos a day, and I would use this to buy snacks or some other things that I wanted),” shares Co.
Yet, as if the script of her life was already being written, she started to get in touch with the BHWs at around the same time. Her father’s involvement in politics also became a factor in leading her to this role.
“When I was younger, I was the regional president of the Philippine Society for Youth Science Clubs (PSYSC), and one of my activities was conducting medical missions. During that time, I was already [working] with the BHWs. So, I’m kind of close to them. We seldom saw each other when I went to college, until my dad became a politician,” Co explains.
Her interest in science and health continued when she finished psychology at the Ateneo de Manila University (AdMU). She later on entered medical school at the University of Santo Tomas (UST), but it became apparent that her calling was to improve the welfare of those who look after other people.
The plight of BHWs prompted Co to file bills that support the frontliners of the healthcare system, especially in far-flung areas. The bills aim to honor the modernday heroism of these selfless individuals and provide necessary benefits that can help them meet their own needs.
As BHW Party-list’s first nominee, Co had her first term in 2019 after the party-list group gained one seat in the Lower House. This served as assurance that BHWs would get enough help.
Being in a position of power never gets into Co’s head as she keeps herself grounded. Being a steward of good governance, she says, can be done without fanfare. Indeed, public service may be a far cry from her days of counting nails, but humility remains cemented in her core. “If I’m needed here, I’ll do it. I am not the type to be blinded by power. I’m still the same person. I do my work. I don’t care if I don’t get noticed, but I would be thankful if they recognize what I do. What matters is that we are able to assist those in need. That’s my brand of leadership: simple, real. It is what it is,” Co says.
Co’s drive to succeed led her to be elected as secretary-general of the Party-list Coalition during the 18th Congress. The coalition is composed of incumbent party-list representatives.
𝐓𝐑𝐄𝐀𝐓𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐓𝐇𝐎𝐒𝐄 𝐖𝐇𝐎 𝐓𝐑𝐄𝐀𝐓 𝐔𝐒
Though her responsibilities continue to mount, Co never forgets the group that trusts her the most. Her connections with BHWs for most of her life made it easy for Co to pinpoint their struggles as they fulfill their essential tasks.
“Most of them started young, and they are now married. But up to now, they still have no fixed salaries yet. The barangay health workers are volunteers, and some of them get as low as 50 pesos a month. That’s not enough for their food, and more so for transportation especially that they do house-to-house tasks,” laments Co.
This plight of BHWs prompted the lady solon to file bills that support the frontliners of the healthcare system, especially in far-flung areas. She filed House Bill (HB) 01670, or “An Act Declaring April 7 Every Year as Barangay Health Workers Day,” to honor the modern-day heroism of these selfless individuals. Co also introduced HB01547, or “An Act Providing for the Protection of Barangay Health Workers for Continued Health Services.” But the most critical piece of legislation she authored is HB01546, or “An Act Providing for the Magna Carta of Barangay Health Workers,” which aims to ensure that they enjoy their fundamental rights. She is pushing for the passage of this magna carta so that BHWs can have health benefits, transportation and food allowances, and scholarships for their children. The proposed health benefits also include discounts on doctor ’s consultation fees and medicines. These incentives will be of great help, especially to BHWs who are not yet senior citizens.
“With that, at least, they will have benefits [that can help them meet their needs] because they only get honoraria since they are just volunteers. It’s actually just the basics—food and transportation—so that they can move around because that’s their work. Then there are the health benefits because they are frontliners,” Co explains.
Co will also continue to push for first aid training to improve the BHWs’ services, especially in areas where there are no doctors assigned to the barrios. If they are trained in first aid, Co explains, BHWs can respond to accidents or emergency cases that do not need hospital treatment and they will just report these to the Department of Health (DOH).
Though programs for BHWs are already making some headway, Co admits that it will take more improvement to reach all BHWs in the Philippines. This means exerting more effort and partnering with more leaders and agencies to push for her other initiatives.
BHWs will benefit immensely from infrastructure initiatives, especially since some have to walk long hours to reach places that are not accessible even by tricycle. Co claims that BHWs also require additional blood pressure measuring equipment, which is why they intend to allot funds to buy such. For each barangay, they want to distribute one blood pressure-measuring apparatus.
The congresswoman takes pride whenever BHWs reach the farthest corners of the nation to bring much-needed materials. She cites an island in Rizal where the residents were devastated by a typhoon. Aside from some medical equipment, Co’s office also brought bicycles to ease the delivery of services by BHWs in each house.
While reaching every BHW is arduous, Co and her staff make it a point to meet as many of them as possible, even if it entails long travel hours and riding public transportation. It’s a challenge that keeps her linked to her sworn duty.
𝐀 𝐁𝐈𝐆𝐆𝐄𝐑 𝐈𝐌𝐏𝐑𝐈𝐍𝐓 𝐎𝐍 𝐓𝐇𝐄 𝐍𝐀𝐓𝐈𝐎𝐍’𝐒 𝐇𝐄𝐀𝐋𝐓𝐇
Well aware that her job is to craft laws not just for the sector she represents but for all Filipinos, Co has pledged to extend her work beyond addressing the needs of BHWs. She also wants to pursue initiatives to help Filipinos stay in shape. She wants BHWs to be present in schools so they can adequately observe students exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. “Not all students can be monitored by the teacher. A barangay health worker can act as the assistant who knows how to read the temperature, determine whether it’s a cough or cold, and recognize nausea,” Co explains. She also wants to tax foods with sodium levels above what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends, as she did with high-sugar foods. This would discourage Filipinos from consuming more chips because Filipino food is already salty. Co believes that this would encourage Filipinos to adopt a healthy lifestyle.
Co is also pushing for reproductive health education that starts at the barangay level because it is a powerful educational tool, especially for those who lack knowledge about issues related to pregnancy. This will also be a way to curb the country’s growing population. “Education is really powerful. If they know what will happen, what they are doing, and the consequences, they will prepare well before getting pregnant. So, reproductive health education is very badly needed in our country,” she stresses.
𝐏𝐑𝐄𝐒𝐄𝐑𝐕𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐎𝐔𝐑 𝐂𝐔𝐋𝐓𝐔𝐑𝐄
Co’s advocacy goes beyond physical and mental health, given that she also has a Bachelor’s Degree in Interior Design. She is also passionate about maintaining the country’s heritage as a member of the House Special Committee on Creative Industry and Performing Arts. Co also helped set up the Council for the Creatives, along with Pangasinan 4th District Representative Christopher De Venecia. “We’re just like a group of friends who like the arts. Then someone opened up a topic about creating a committee, and then we did create a committee on that. Meanwhile, there were already bills passed to create that council, and hopefully, it will gain ground,” Co says with hope.
Co has expressed concern that if next generations are unable to continue what she started, the culture she wants to uplift may perish. That’s why children’s health is also dear to her as chairperson of the House Committee on the Welfare of Children. A courtesy call with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is also in the works to hold seminars for proper child rearing and parenting.
With so much on her plate, Co makes sure to fix her schedule and maximize the time she has. What’s certain, though, is that she will leave no stone unturned in doing what’s best for others. “Where I am needed, I will go,” she assures.
Education is really powerful. If they know what will happen, what they are doing, and the consequences, they will prepare well before getting pregnant. So, reproductive health education is very badly needed in our country.