‘DOH big outlay to aid recovery from pandemic’

The House of Representatives committee on appropriations on Monday said the P195.63-billion budget of the Department of Health (DOH) for 2023 will help the country recover from the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and cope with other debilitating diseases.

‘NO’ TO HEALTH BUDGET CUTS. Health workers from the Health Alliance for Democracy, Alliance of Health Workers, and other health organizations trooped to the House of Representatives in Quezon City to protest the health budget cuts and demand adequate budget allotment for direct health services and health workers. Manny Palmero

“The health of our economy depends on the health of our people. And our country’s recovery depends on the physical, financial, and mental recovery of all Filipinos,” said Ako-Bicol Rep. Elizaldy Co during deliberations on the department’s 2023 budget. “That is why DOH deserves all the support.”

But DOH officials at the hearing said the P1 billion COVID-19 Special Risk Allowance (SRA) supposedly allotted for health workers is still unfunded two years after the pandemic hit the country.

DOH officer-in-charge Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the SRA of 55,844 health workers was still unfunded.

“We are discussing this with DBM (Department of Budget and Management),” Vergeire said. “This is worth P1 billion, and we are still waiting for their response.”

DBM Director Sofia Abad said her department was still evaluating the DOH’s request for a health worker SRA. She said they had asked the department for additional requirements, and the DOH was able to submit these on Sept. 6.

“The department (DBM) is evaluating the propriety of the claims, but we have identified the potential budget source to cover the request,” Abad said.

Asked if the DBM had enough funds for the health worker SRA, she said yes.

At least 400 health workers have died due to COVID-19 since the pandemic hit the country in March 2020.

The health sector’s total P296.3-billion budget for next year is over 70 percent higher than the COVID-centric budget of 2021 (P216 billion) and 10 percent higher than last year’s (P274 billion).

Rep. Co said that aside from COVID-19 and its attendant problems, the country continues to suffer from other debilitating diseases.

“We also need to prioritize non-COVID medical needs like reproductive health; non-communicable diseases like diabetes, kidney and heart disease; research and development; and even international cooperation,” he said.

About P5.84 billion is allocated for the prevention and control of communicable diseases. The amount would cover first-line tuberculosis drugs for more than 150,000 adults and pediatric TB patients, as well as antiretroviral therapy for more than 60,000 adults and over 100 children.

About P8.26 billion is earmarked for family health, immunization, nutrition, and responsible parenting. The amount would cover routine vaccines for over 2 million children 1-year-old or younger, as well as family planning commodities for at least 3 million women.

About P2.1 billion is allocated for mental health items to at least 213 access sites and for cancer items to at least 28 access sites.

In her presentation of the DOH proposed 2023 budget, Vergeire said the goal of the department is to have healthier Filipinos who enjoy better, equitable outcomes, a responsive health system, and improved financial risk protection.

Almost 75 percent of the combined budget of the DOH Office of the Secretary and the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) goes to universal health care, the COVID-19 response, and health systems resilience.

More than P75.626 billion is earmarked for the health emergency allowance for more than 805,000 health care workers. More than P920 million is allocated for COVID-19 compensation for 60,000 health care workers.

In the Senate, Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III said nurses and doctors, whom he called the pandemic heroes, should not be made to bear the brunt of the budget cuts in the name of fiscal tightening.

“To cut the health sector’s budget in the name of fiscal tightening is a mistake that can be proven costly, if not deadly. This is not a sound policy given the fact that there is a continuing pandemic,” he said.

“We should not aspire for more fiscal space at the expense of our doctors and nurses who sacrificed their lives health, and welfare in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” Pimentel said.

He lamented the inadequate budget to fund the nurses’ salaries and benefits mandated by law as he vowed to scrutinize the Marcos administration’s first spending bill.

The Senate committee on finance will start the examination next week of the proposed P5.268-trillion national budget for 2023.

“Is this how we intend to reward the sacrifices of our pandemic heroes?” Pimentel said.

“Our health care workers deserve a raise, praise, and more benefits, not a budget cut,” he said.

The DOH has been allocated P20 billion for public health emergency benefits and allowances. Another P19 billion has been set aside in the unprogrammed funds.

The funding for unprogrammed funds, Pimentel noted, may only be released when total revenues exceed the target or through loans or aid.

The minority chief said that health care workers are entitled to benefits and allowances during the COVID-19 pandemic as mandated in Republic Act No. 11712 or the “Public Health Emergency Benefits and Allowances for Health Care Workers Act.”

Also on Monday, the DOH budget for 2023 sets aside P287 per person for the reproductive health needs of 3 million women, Health Undersecretary Beverly Ho said.

“We have earmarked P863 million for reproductive health and family planning commodities (contraceptives), an increase from the previous year’s P585 million,” Ho said.

This was in addition to the P50 million budget for reproductive health promotion and communication campaigns related to family planning.

Lagman, however, said that the P863 million reproductive health budget covering 3 million women would only mean P287 per woman of reproductive age.

“This [P287] is annually. Do you think this is sufficient?” Lagman asked.

Vergeire said that an increase would be welcome.

“Considering that we are basing it per capita, P863 million is not enough, but there are also other factors. There are also other agencies and development partners providing support to us, that is why we have asked for this amount,” Vergeire said.

“But if we will be given additional funding, it would be beneficial for our women,” Vergeire added.

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