Melbert Reyes: Championing the nursing profession

The pandemic is making it harder for nurses in the Philippines, an ailing sector peppered with issues such as abysmal salaries, and poor working conditions. Philippine Nurses Association's (PNA) national president Melbert Reyes shares about the challenges of the profession, and the association's response in such difficult times.

PNA turns a century old next year, could you share how far the association has come?
PNA promotes the welfare and professional growth of Filipino nurses here and abroad. We lobby government agencies where nursing issues are concerned.

It started as the Filipino Nurses Association (FNA), formed by 150 nurses on September 2, 1922, and incorporated in 1924. FNA became the PNA in 1966. A member of the International Council of Nurses since 1929, PNA has 20,000 local life members and 30,000 regular members in the Philippines and abroad.

Is it unwieldy to have such a huge association?
Not really, as PNA has 97 local chapters and 15 overseas chapters, with a president each. It’s also divided into 14 regions and six zones in metro Manila, each headed by a governor. There are 20 governors on the board who elect the PNA officers for a one-year tenure.

You’re 32 years old heading a huge, 100-year-old association. You’re also the regional governor in Calabarzon and Mimaropa. How do you find the time to manage everything?
PNA welcomes young blood. The board of governor chair, George Michael Lim, is also 30-plus years old while some governors range in age from 27 to 32. I became the vice president at 29. Many of us have leadership backgrounds, mine was honed with Rotary International, in various positions including as club president 2016-2017.

I chose to be vocal about many issues confronting the nursing profession. We need to be relevant. We need to be there and be responsive to national issues affecting nurses.

One of the issues is the need to raise the profile of nurses.
Nurses are not loved, appreciated and valued here. A Department of Education module that went viral early this year referenced nurses as maids and companions of doctors. The Department said it will check whether the module came from them and if so, will take the necessary action.

Also this year, PNA denounced a film called tililing (derogatory slang for insanity) for a scene depicting the inappropriate use of nurses’ cap and the nurses’ uniform. It’s humiliating and degrading to nurses.

We’re humans, and our needs are the same as yours. We have families, and need to be healthy and safe, to have an adequate salary and be treated fairly.

Is that why there is a shortage of nurses?
What we have is maldistribution, not a shortage of nurses. We have many nurses but many of them are in business processing outsourcing (BPO), Bureau of Corrections (prison), and Department of Education. We have many nurses at the Bureau of Corrections serving as wardens because they can automatically treat wounds and other simple sicknesses.

There is maldistribution because there are no opportunities in hospitals. It takes a long time before nurses can become permanent staff. In government hospitals, a nurse is offered a contractual position that is renewable every three months. There are no benefits, and no security of tenure. Nurses have become tired of waiting to become permanent staff so they have moved to other sectors.

The salary is also abysmal. At the height of pandemic, a nurse’s take-home pay in a private hospital in Manila was 17,000 pesos (US$347) a month.

That’s already in a private hospital, yet the salary is still low). Before 2019, the salary of nurses in government hospitals was 500 pesos a day. Note that they started with a salary that’s even lower than that. Now, it’s 1,500 pesos a day.

PNA lobbied to implement the Nursing Act of 2002, to place the salary of entry-level nurses in government hospitals to grade 15 levels of 33,000 pesos a month. This was favoured by the Supreme Court in 2019 but not properly implemented until today.

PNA holding a rally to lobby for better working conditions

Recently, there was a call to increase the nurser’s salary and benefits and grant them hazard pay amid the pandemic. Has the situation improved?
It’s still an issue. Under the new regulations, public and private healthcare workers – including nurses – are entitled to hazard pay and compensation benefits if they get infected by Covid-19 amounting to 15,000 pesos for mild cases, and 100,000 pesos for moderate to severe cases, and a million pesos if they died. There’s also a monthly special risk allowance of 5,000 pesos for private and public health workers directly in contact with Covid-19 patients. But not all hospitals accept these and there are delays in granting the hazard pay.

To protect our nurses, we also campaigned for nurses to be vaccinated first. The government listed, and nurses, alongside other health workers, were prioritised in the vaccination programme.

Another ticklish issue is the cap on the number of healthcare workers, including nurses, allowed to work abroad.
Filipino healthcare workers (doctors, nurses, physical therapists, caregivers) deployed abroad used to average 13,000 a year. Due to the pandemic, however, the Department of Labor and Employment limited the deployment to 5,000 a year and last month, upon lobbying by various groups, raised it to 6,500 healthcare workers a year.

In July 2021, labor secretary Silvestre Bello III proposed the scrapping of board exams for certain professions, including nursing, because four years of studying and receiving a diploma are enough for graduates to practice their chosen fields. What’s the PNA’s position on this?
PNA disagrees. The nursing board exam serves as the check and balance for the quality of education that we have in the Philippines. Moreover, nurses take care of people’s health and lives, thus we cannot just remove the only way of assessing nurses’ competencies.

With physical meetings interrupted, how does PNA communicate and interact with members?
We continue with free online webinars. Instead of the usual face-to-face summer conference attended by 2,000 members on average, we held it on May 25-26, 2021, via Zoom with 5,000 members registering. Our foreign partner was amazed as it was their first time to have catered to a big audience.

In February 2021, we held a series of Ted-esque live talk shows named Coffeeshop Talk (kapihan) via our Facebook page, where more than 5,000 attended. On May 12, 2021, International Nurses Day, we held a poster-making contest that was well-received.

Each PNA chapter holds its own meeting but there is a general assembly for all members to meet. We used this to meet-face-to-face, before the pandemic. But this year’s general assembly meeting was virtual.

As we mentioned previously, next year will be PNA’s centennial. How will the association celebrate this milestone?
We are planning a year-long celebration. We launched several activities in October during the general assembly meeting. For instance, we’ll be putting together a coffee table book to look back at past memories, as well as hold a centennial gala night – which we hope can be done face-to-face – as the culminating activity.

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