In this Sept. 8, 2020, photo, a health worker puts a quarantine wrist band on a resident of Calocan City after administering a COVID-19 swab test.
MANILA, Philippines — Two senators from the minority bloc on Wednesday urged a bigger budget allocation for public health in 2021.
“In the face of the largest health crisis of our time, our health budget is anemic,” Sen. Risa Hontiveros warned in a mix of English and Filipino during a Development Budget Coordination Committee (DBCC) hearing.
Hontiveros pointed out that Department of Works and Highways, the Department of Interior and Local Government and the Department of National Defense, all had higher allocations than the health sector in the proposed 2021 National Budget.
The Department of Budget and Management in its proposal allotted the biggest amount, P754.4 billion, to the Department of Education.
“Hindi pwedeng pang-lima lang ang health sector among the departments. Nasa gitna tayo ng pandemya and it should be expected that we will be looking at a more health-heavy, COVID-and recession-responsive budget. Hindi ito dapat tinitipid. Hindi dapat tinitipid ang kalusugan at buhay ng Pilipino,” Hontiveros said.
(The health sector cannot be fifth among the departments. We are in the middle of a pandemic and it should be expected that we will be looking at a more health-heavy, COVID-and-recession-responsive budget. We cannot cut corners on this. We should not cut corners on the health and lives of Filipinos.)
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon flagged the reduction of the health department’s budget from the current P151 billion to P131 billion in 2021.
The combined allocation for the Department of Health and the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. under the proposed budget is P203.1 billion.
“We need to improve our testing, contract tracing and our ability to treat. How can we achieve this if we reduced the budget of the DOH?” Drilon said.
‘Economic recovery dependent on public health’
The minority leader further argued that the country’s economic recovery is dependent on the government’s ability to protect public health.
“We should be able to provide confidence to the public that we are indeed able to address the pandemic. People are afraid to go out today. We can have all kinds of stimulus but as long as there is no confidence on the part of the public, we will find difficulty recovering,” Drilon said.
Similarly, Hontiveros said the reopening of the economy and employment recovery will remain unlikely in 2021 and 2022 if the provisions to contain the spread of COVID-19 fall short.
Citing an unemployment rate of 10%, the senator urged that more comprehensive and expanded health insurance coverage be put in place “to cover at least 4.6 million Filipinos who lost their jobs and income source.”
Senators urge more funding for PhilHealth
According to Hontiveros, this means that P15.56 billion in funds need to be allocated to PhilHealth.
“In this time of health crisis, the public should be able to rely on PhilHealth, especially if they don’t have money for treatment. [The agency] shouldn’t just be for the corrupt to take advantage of,” she said in Filipino.
“We should pump in more funds to ensure universal health coverage amid the pandemic, even as we rid PhilHealth of corruption, mismanagement and other irregularities,” she added.
The Senate on September 1 bared the findings of its probe into alleged corruption and mismanagement within PhilHealth and recommended charges against several top executives of the agency, including former chief Ricardo Morales and Chairman of the Board and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III.
More than half the Senate has called for Duque’s replacement over his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, a sentiment which was renewed in its Committee of the Whole Report on PhilHealth.
“Of course, there are issues on the capabilities of the secretary of health today but that is beside the point. As a policy, we should increase the allocation for the health sector,” Drilon said.
‘2021 health budget, ultimate litmus test for UHC’
Hontiveros further called the allocations for the 2021 budget the “ultimate litmus test” for Universal Health Care Law.
“While the Department of Health prioritizes UHC implementation and COVID-19 response in its expenditures, the 2021 budget is not in any way aligned with the UHC,” she said.
According to the senator, the proposed budget is not enough to strengthen local government unit capacities, health promotion and is insufficient in its allocations for frontliners and health workers.
“Hindi ba malinaw na ito ang prayoridad dapat natin? (Is it not clear that these should be our priorities?)” Hontiveros said.
In addition to this, she called the budget for surveillance and epidemiology “scant and unreasonable.”
The senator also highlighted the need to allocate sufficient funds for vaccination “and ensure that the projection of costs will be sufficient from importation to distribution.”
“Our budget for surveillance and solidarity trials for a COVID-19 vaccine cannot be small. Given that a successful vaccine might be discovered next year, the government should at least consider allocating more for a free mass vaccination,” she said. — Bella Perez-Rubio
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