Dec 17, 2017 Last Updated 3:10 AM, Dec 12, 2017

From banking to life saving

The woman behind Guam’s first private hospital

FOR many years, Guam depended on the government-run Guam Memorial Hospital for medical care. But due to limited services offered at the problematic public hospital, several Guam patients had to seek medical treatment in off-island institutions.

The health care landscape changed when the privatelyowned Guam Regional Medical City opened in summer last year. GRMC is a 130-bed acute care facility operated by The Medical City—a world-class medical institution in the Philippines. It took almost 10 years to build the $240-million hospital, a project initiated by Guam businessman Peter Sgro, chairman of the Guam Healthcare and Hospital Development Foundation.

GRMC is headed by Margaret Bengzon, president and CEO of the GRMC and a senior member of The Medical City’s management team. Prior to her engagement with The Medical City, Bengzon was a consultant for the Philippine Foundation for Health and Development, with specialisation in the areas of health policy, health finance and hospital management.

Her prestigious roster of clients included the World Health Organisation, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Harvard Medical Institute, AWO International / BMZ (German Ministry for Economic Cooperation), and the Philippine Department of Health. But health care has not always been Bengzon’s scene.

She was a banker by training. After graduating from Ateneo de Manila University, Bengzon moved to New York, where she served as vice president of the Financial Services Group of Chemical Banking Corp. When the company entered into a merger that gave birth to what is now known as JP Morgan Chase Bank, the Bengzons moved back to the Philippines in 1998. Margaret Bengzon headed the bank’s local headquarters. Years later, she found herself at The Medical City.

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THE Philippine budget carrier Cebu Pacific launched its maiden flight between Manila and Guam on March 15, propelling a new air service that is touted to be a game-changer in the market. The first low-cost carrier servicing the Manila-Guam flight, Cebu Pacific is the latest addition to the roster of Guam’s signatory carriers. It currently offers promo fares that are up to 83 percent lower than Philippine Airlines and United Airlines, whose prices range from US$350 to nearly US$500 depending on the season.

With an introductory fare that starts at $40, (available until Nov. 29), Cebu Pacific becomes the cheapest way for Philippine travelers to come to Guam. Its foray into the market has forced United and PAL to rethink their air fares. “This means that the Philippines is now more accessible and lot more affordable,” said Candice Iyog, Cebu Pacific’s vice president for marketing and distribution. Prior to Cebu Pacific’s entry into the Guam market, there were approximately 5,900 weekly seats available between Guam and Manila.

Cebu Pacific operates four times a week, using the airline’s brand-new 180-seater Airbus A320 fleet. With 1,440 weekly seats added to the pool, Cebu Pacific is expected to boost air traffic between the two countries further. “We talk about Guam being the America in Asia. Cebu Pacific is just a stepping stone to our expansion to the Asia Pacific region,” Guam Gov. Eddie Calvo said during the inaugural ceremony held at the AB Won Pat International Airport. The evolution of Guam tourism is parallel to the history of aviation on island. 

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Guam at the crossroads for self determination

ONE of the last colonies in the 21st century, Guam is an unincorporated US territory in search of a political identity. Its long quest for self-determination continues to hang in limbo — confronted by unresolved legal questions and paralysed by political divisiveness. Throughout the decades, the fervor of political status discussions comes intermittently— now it’s hot, now it’s not. In his recent State of the Island address, Guam Gov. Eddie Calvo brought the issue back to the fore.

“It’s time we confronted the fact that, for nearly 400 years, the state of the island has been colonial. It is the unchanged and unrepentant shadow cast upon our unshackled destiny,” the governor said. Vowing to take the lead in moving forward with the unfinished business, the governor proposed that a political status plebiscite be held in the November general elections. The next day after delivering his address, Calvo proceeded to the Guam Election Commission to file a draft measure of the plebiscite.

“If we are committed to our self-determination, then there’s no reason to wait for another election to pass,” he said. Since the 1970s, Guam lawmakers and policy-makers have been attempting to schedule a political status vote. Voters are to choose among three options: independence, statehood and free association. The last plebiscite schedule was proposed in 2004. Again, nothing came of it. 

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While the United States still has seven more years to get its act together as far as relocating US Marines to Guam, islanders there are more concerned with the immediate nuclear threats from North Korea. Guam Mayor Paul McDonald said they were hearing a lot about how the US was preparing to install nuclear interceptors around the US, and they were worried they are the closest US territory to North Korea.

“If anything will happen to the US, we will be the first US territory to be hit,” McDonald told Islands Business. “We hear the US will build interceptors in Hawaii and Alaska but there was nothing about Guam.” However, he said Guam Senators Sen. Frank Aguon Jr. and Gov. Eddie Calvo have been in contact with the US Department of Defence.

The two officials wrote to the Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel last month, expressing the concerns of the islanders from a potential North Korean missile attack. Islanders are also asking for the installation of missile interceptor sites on the island for these purposes. North Korea threatened a preemptive nuclear strike against the U.S. earlier last month.

The Obama administration announced later it was installing 14 new interceptor locations at Fort Greely in Alaska. McDonald was also disappointed with the decision by the United States Senate to adopt Senator John McCain’s amendment to the Consolidated Appropriations Act for the Fiscal Year 2013.

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Obama Administration under pressure

The themes of “OneMicronesia” and “The Ocean Unites Us” were the backdrop to the 17th Micronesian Chief Executives Summit on Guam in mid-March. These were clearly evidenced in the island leaders’ discussion of the world-recognized Micronesia Challenge conservation program, regional efforts at water and sanitation improvements, invasive species threats and eradication work, climate change mitigation, and solutions to problems in shipping and communications. But a one-day focus on the so-called “Compact Impact” —the term used to describe the costs to United States jurisdictions for providing health, education and other services to islanders from the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau using the visa-free access provision in the Compact of Free Association—showed diverging interests among the islands. Guam is playing host to an estimated 30,000 people from the FSM, Marshall Islands and Palau. “We must find ways to ease the Compact impact burden on Guam,” said Guam Delegate to the U.S. Congress Madeleine Bordallo. “While we continue to urge the federal government to provide more resources for Compactimpact, the gulf between what is doable and what is needed is huge.”

Both Guam and Hawaii say they are spending tens of millions of dollars annually on services for islanders who have migrated from the freely associated states, but receive only about $10 million a year in U.S. Compact impact reimbursement from the U.S. federal government. Marshall Islands and Palau officials sought to distance themselves from the FSM on the issue in both Guam and Hawaii because of their relatively smaller populations compared to the FSM. Marshall Islands Minister Tony deBrum told Islands Business that it was important “not to lump everyone together,” noting that by his government’s count, there are only 340 Marshall Islanders living in Guam, about half what the Guam government reports.

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