Criminal and abominable
What’s worse than having multiple public health crises such as measles, dengue and now polio simultaneously stalking the land? The news that the 2020 budget of the Department of Health (DOH), the government agency on the frontline of the public health emergencies, has been cut by almost P10 billion.
Why would anyone do such a thing at a time like this? Who can be so heartless that, at the very moment when public health needs the greatest priority and resources from the government, whatever pittance it gets relative to other departments would still be whittled down?
But there it is — as approved by the House of Representatives last Friday, the DOH budget for its operations and various health programs for the coming year stood at P88 billion, down from the 2019 budget of P98.6 billion.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros, among others, bewailed the drastic slash as an “attack on public health,” coming as it does on the heels of a succession of outbreaks of diseases.
Cutting back the budget that affects the delivery of basic health services to the poor majority of Filipinos is indeed the unkindest cut of all. The biggest casualty in the reduced DOH budget is the newly enacted Universal Health Care Law, which is set for implementation next year to provide universal health coverage for all 110 million Filipinos, with an allocation of P67 billion.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth), which will implement the UHC, needs at least P50 billion more just to roll out the primary care benefit packages next year.
The landmark UHC law would supposedly require between P241 billion and P247 billion in its first year of implementation alone. But as it is, Duque has conceded that the UHC’s targeted national implementation next year may not be possible due to lack of funds and even lack of readiness by the frontline agencies.
Also dampening the UHC’s prospects was the revelation of massive corruption in PhilHealth, such as ghost patients, dialysis treatments for dead members and other fraudulent schemes that were exposed in this paper’s investigative report.
Some lawmakers called for the suspension of the UHC implementation after the Inquirer reported that fraud and overpayment resulted in a whopping P154-billion loss of PhilHealth funds.
Likewise to be affected by a lower DOH budget are vital programs such as the Health Facilities Enhancement Program, which involves the upgrading of health facilities around the country and the training of health professionals.
The new budget sets aside P5.9 billion for this program; its estimated cost is P23.5 billion. Another is the Reproductive Health Law, which was allocated P154 million, and the purchase of antiretroviral therapy drugs for some 37,000 HIV patients in 125 HIV hubs.
While there is much to be said about Duque’s patchy leadership that has turned the DOH and its related agencies into hotspots of irregularity and inefficiency, there is also everything to deplore and denounce in the other executive and legislative leaders’ lopsided allocation of the mind-boggling P4.1 trillion budget of the Duterte administration for 2020—apparently at the expense of public health, education and other services much needed by the people.
While the DOH budget was cut, for instance, the House of Representatives shamelessly set aside P100 million in pork allocations for each of its 299 members. The confidential and intelligence funds approved for President Duterte’s office are also at an obscene level — doubled from P2.5 billion to P4.5 billion, or even bigger than those of the Department of National Defense or the Philippine National Police, and close enough to fund the DOH’s nationwide health facilities program.
This blatant misprioritizing of the national pie is criminal and abominable, especially at a time when majority of Filipinos, mostly the underprivileged, are at risk of preventable diseases such as measles, TB, dengue and polio, and a host of other public health and social welfare inequities remain starkly unaddressed.
Should this always be the country’s state of affairs — our lawmakers grinning ear to ear with their pork barrel funds, our executive officials allocating themselves monstrous amounts of secret funds that are beyond audit and accountability — while ordinary citizens always get the short end of the stick?
Each year, come budget approval time, it’s not the people who end up happy, healthy, or at least provisioned enough for their basic survival. Their leaders have once again raided the larder for themselves.
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