Palace on RITM budget cut: Most testing now done by private sector
MANILA, Philippines — Malacañang on Monday justified the Duterte administration's proposal of a lower budget for the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine for next year, saying a huge chunk of COVID-19 tests are now being conducted by the private sector.
Administration critics, including Vice President Leni Robredo, have questioned the P170-million cut in the proposed RITM budget, saying the outlay for important health programs should not be reduced while the Philippines is facing a pandemic.
The RITM is the country's primary testing center for COVID-19. In July 2020, it had to scale down operations after 31 tested positive for COVID-19 and "to address equipment problems, shortage of hard-to-procure supplies and an overflow of samples received."
In March 2020, early in the pandemic, RITM staff had to work nearly round-the-clock to process samples, with many having to stay in tents or in vacant office rooms for breaks.
Asked to explain the budget cut, presidential spokesman Harry Roque pointed out that RITM is not the only entity conducting COVID-19 tests.
The Philippine Red Cross, which President Rodrigo Duterte recently said should be audited and said in the past was greedy for urging the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. to pay it for conducting the RT-PCR tests, is among those entities.
"We started with RITM as the lone laboratory… But we are now doing 72,000 tests a day… But I'm sure there are other reasons behind this. So when it comes to testing, we're now relying… to a very large degree on the private sector," Roque said at a press briefing.
The government includes testing by private institutions in measuring the country's testing capacity.
"When it comes to testing, it's because a huge chunk of our testing is now being undertaken by the private sector. Now, as to the cost, I hope it will go down because we have incentives for machines that are donated and the testing kits that were donated. The cost should not be the same if it is not donated," he added.
There are 279 licensed COVID-19 testing laboratories in the Philippines, according to the health department's website.
Roque expressed optimism that the prices of COVID-19 tests would go down because of market forces.
"In fact, there are already discussions about a new price ceiling when it comes to PCR testing. Let us wait for the new price ceiling but I believe it will become a lower price ceiling," he added.
Late last month, the government lowered the price ceiling for RT-PCR tests as the country grapples with rising COVID-19 infections.
The price caps, which took effect Monday, are P2,800 for plate-based and P2,450 for cartridge-based GeneXpert in public laboratories and P3,360 for plate-based and P2,940 for GeneXpert in private laboratories.
For home service, the tests will cost an additional P1,000 at most.
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