Cora's New Gift Idea

Cora M. Tellez founded Sterling HSA in 2004 and steered it to become a $100 million company six years later.

For a Filipino expatriate anywhere in the world, “sending money home” is an obligation that is just as important as going to Mass or holding on to one's job. It's necessary, it's crucial and, when the deed is done—usually once a month—the giver gets the supreme satisfaction of having done one's duty to the family. Family, after all, is the raison d'etre for braving the risks and the pain of leaving the homeland for work or immigration.

The approximately ten million-strong Filipino diaspora is the fourth largest remittance market in the world, according to a World Bank report. The statistic was compiled in 2010, but there's no reason to think that the ranking has changed drastically.

In 2010, the Philippines' nationals abroad remitted more than $21 billion. The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (Central Bank) estimates a slightly higher figure for 2012. Of the total, 60 percent comes from Filipinos in U.S., the large majority of whom are immigrants who now consider the U.S. as their second country, but whose ties to the homeland and their remaining family members there remain strong and resolute. 

The Philippines remains one of the top remittance-receiving countries (Source: World Bank)

One of them is Cora M. Tellez, a Filipina corporate executive whose business credentials run impressively deep. But because she has lived the ultimate success story in the U.S., she has committed herself not only to the upliftment of the Filipino American community through her nonprofit work but, more importantly, to helping out her extended family back home.

Tellez founded Sterling HSA in 2004, shortly after she “flunked retirement” and returned to full time work, this time as entrepreneur. Before she turned her back on the corporate world in 2002 to spend more time with her youngest son who was on his senior year in high school, Tellez was president of the health plans division of giant health insurer Health Net Inc., after being president of Prudential's western health care operations; CEO of Blue Shield of California, Bay Region; and Regional Manager for Kaiser Permanente of Hawaii.

Such high-powered positions combined gave Tellez 25 years of experience in health care finance and delivery. Sterling HSA, where she is president and CEO, has emerged as one of the leaders of the health savings account (HSA) market, "a new category of tax-advantaged health care benefits," according to its web site.  As an administrator of HSAs, Sterling offers a range of services for insurance carriers, employers and consumers, and an expanding product portfolio that spans the range of medical benefit plans.

Cora Tellez and her husband Pablo

Following six years of success with Sterling HSA, Tellez founded Sterling SIA, a third-party administrative services company for employers that self-insure medical, dental and vision benefits.

Despite a killing schedule that requires her to fly to various states for speaking engagements several times a month, and despite her many board memberships and nonprofit involvements, Tellez has never lost sight of the need to help out the folks back home.

Despite a killing schedule, Tellez has never lost sight of the need to help out folks back home.

From her many conversations with Filipinos who are similarly committed, Tellez zeroed in on a glaring problem that confronts the donor community: The need to ensure that the money they send will be used for the specific purpose it was intended.

Everyone who has responded to distress calls by relatives back home knows the frustration of money sent spent unwisely. Stories abound of hard-earned cash from OFWs remitted to pay for the construction of a house or the tuition of the children spent instead on gambling or carousing.

To avert such fund diversions, Tellez this year established the Gift of Learning and Gift of Health programs, (a.k.a.”Regalo”) which guarantee that donor funds are provided for the purpose they were intended. 

These “donor-controlled” programs allow the person donating the funds to designate a recipient in the Philippines, determine the amount to be given and the schedule of fund disbursement, and get receipts that confirm that the money given was actually used for education or medical expenses.

Listen to Cora Tellez talk about the Regalo program in "Iba ang Pinoy" with Atty. Lou Tancinco:

For a more detailed description of the Regalo program process,

The Regalo program can also be used as a backup medical expense account for Filipino Americans who plan to retire in the Philippines. Because Medicare benefits can only apply there for emergency treatments, those who get sick or require hospitalization will have to spend their own money for treatment. If they have a Gift of Health account with themselves as beneficiaries, they can use that saved-up money instead.

To operationalize this process, Sterling HSA has partnered with RushRemit, a U.S.-based remittance company, and RCBC, one of the Philippines' largest multinational banks.

To start an account, one only needs $100. Donors can add to the fund anytime they are able to; there's no pressure or schedule. Accounts with more than $500 start earning interest at the standard bank rate for savings accounts.

Tellez made sure that the process is simple and user-friendly, both for the donor and recipient, so people will be enticed to use it. The key difference of the Regalo program from just a regular remittance transaction is the accountability. Recipients are asked to submit documentation that the money is going to be spent for the intended purpose.

Cora Tellez and the Sterling HSA team

More than just being a vehicle to send money home, the Regalo program of Sterling HSA encourages a culture of responsibility to take the place of the culture of dependency. The underlying message is that the money sent is assistance to regain one's health or to get an education-to lift one's life from dire straits-and not an excuse to be idle or unproductive as many of those dependent on overseas largesse have been known to do.

The Regalo program is still new and, at this point, represents only a minute portion of Sterling's massive operations. But Tellez is unrelenting in her quest to propagate the culture of sharing among Filipino Americans, which is something she herself has inherited from her parents who helped send quite a number of their relatives to school.

After all, as Tellez strongly believes, the real measure of success is not by how much you have but by how much you give. “Filipinos in the U.S. are so blessed,” she says. “We are given the opportunity earn and to share what we have.”