Starving health and education
The House of Representatives began last week its plenary discussions on the proposed P3.757-trillion budget for next year, and questions immediately arose: Why a national budget that features deep cuts in the allocations for key frontline agencies such as the Department of Education (DepEd) and the Department of Health (DOH)?
One of the most disconcerting items is the P100-billion cut in the DepEd budget for the construction of classrooms next year — from P116 billion to just over P10 billion.
That is enough to build only 4,000 classrooms instead of the proposed 47,000 for 2019.
Sen. Bam Aquino, vice chair of the Senate’s committee on finance, described the severe reduction as practically a gross dereliction of duty: “Our children and their education should be the government’s priority,” he said. Aquino has called for at least P15 billion in funding next year, so that a minimum of 10,000 new classrooms will be built.
The Commission on Higher Education’s student financial assistance programs were also dealt a blow, their P4.9-billion allocation this year cut to P1.7 billion for 2019.
In particular, the scholarship program Tulong Dunong — down to P1.1 billion from P4.1 billion — will suffer gravely. Most of the more than 350,000 college students receiving stipends of some P6,000 to P12,000 a year to help them complete their education under the program may lose their lifeline in 2019.
The DepEd will likewise see a reduction in the Basic Educational Facilities Fund (BEFF), which underwrites the school building program of the DepEd and the Department of Public Works and Highways, to just P34.742 billion in 2019 from P105.461 billion in 2018.
The Department of Health shares the same fate with the DepEd, its budget shaved from P109.8 billion this year to just P74.1 billion next year.
The Health Human Resources Deployment Program, for one, will only get P1.2 billion next year from this year’s P9.6 billion, raising grave concerns that as many as 15,000 health workers around the country may be displaced.
This vital program deploys health professionals like doctors, nurses, midwives and dentists across the country, particularly in rural areas and poor communities.
The budget cut will mean “crippled essential health services for the poor. It is as if a fiscal tourniquet was applied on the DOH, constricting the flow of funds, which is the lifeblood of its programs,” lamented Sen. Grace Poe.
The biggest cut, however, was reserved for the DOH’s Health Facilities Enhancement Program (HFEP), which was allocated only P50 million in the proposed budget, from P30 billion in 2018.
The Department of Budget and Management (DBM) is standing pat on the cuts, based on its new policy junking the previous so-called obligation-based budgeting for cash-based budgeting, which requires that the budget allocated for a particular year be spent on the same year to fast-track projects and thus reduce chronic government underspending.
This will supposedly lead to greater fiscal discipline, the more prudent use of limited resources and improved delivery of public goods and services.
On the HFEP, for example, Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno said its massive budget reduction was due to the “dismal spending performance” of the DOH.
As of March 31 this year, the HFEP’s total disbursements only reached around P13.5 billion, less than 10 percent of the program’s P138 billion appropriations since 2008. Diokno cites the same premises for BEFF’s 2019 budget.
But Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon may also have a point when he said it’s wrong to penalize the beneficiaries of government services for the inadequacies of the implementing department.
“Even assuming the tag [of slow spending] is true, why does DBM punish the health sector for the alleged inefficiency of the DOH secretary and his staff? Why not discipline Secretary Duque and the responsible DOH officials for ineffective budget utilization, rather than sacrifice the welfare of the people, especially the poor, who need the services of the DOH?”
Indeed, there has been little to no discussion on the possible reasons why the projects are not being implemented as they should—traditional governmental bottlenecks, for instance, such as lack of personnel, red tape, institutional corruption.
Is summarily gutting the budget for vital frontline services really the most effective means to whip the bureaucracy into shape? Why virtually starve the citizenry of basic services over the inefficiency of those in charge?
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