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Paltry budget for vaccines

/ 05:08 AM October 22, 2020

President Duterte’s lofty promise to have at least 20 million Filipinos inoculated with the eagerly awaited COVID-19 vaccine is in very real danger of being unfulfilled, at the rate that Congress is going about crafting the spending plan for 2021.

Under the record high P4.506-trillion General Appropriations Act approved by the House of Representatives on third reading last week, a paltry P2.5 billion was set aside for the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines by the Department of Health (DOH).

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How paltry is paltry? At an estimated price of P641 per dose, only about 3.9 million Filipinos, or a mere 3 percent of the population, will get their hands on a vaccine meant to protect them from the disease that has already infected over 360,000 Filipinos and claimed the lives of some 6,700.

“Napakaliit po na budget para sa bakuna,” lamented Marikina Rep. Stella Quimbo during the budget deliberations, “Napakaliit po kumpara sa unang statement po ng pangulo na at least 20 million Filipinos ang dapat pong makinabang dito po in terms of free vaccine.”

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In a taped address to the nation back in July, Mr. Duterte boasted that his administration had enough funds to purchase and distribute for free COVID-19 vaccines to 20 million Filipinos.

Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III chimed in, laying out the ambitious goal to secure 40 million doses of vaccines for about P20 billion. “We have a plan,” Domingez committed then.

Mr. Duterte reiterated this promise on Oct. 14: “I have the money already for the vaccine, but I will still have to look for more money because you know there are now 113 million Filipinos And to me, ideally, all should have the vaccine—no exception.”

Unfortunately, when the time came for that promise to be translated into the budget for 2021, the executive planners managed to allocate only P2.5 billion, certainly not reflective of what Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri reminded them is the glaring reality—that the COVID-19 vaccine is the “No. 1 [priority] na kailangan nating pondohan for this coming year.”

Whatever plan Dominguez had in July for the massive purchase of the medicine, if and when it finally becomes available for widespread distribution, appears to have been scuttled or whittled down. However, the “small committee” that was formed by the House under new Speaker Lord Allan Velasco to give the budget another look before transmittal to the Senate did give the vaccine purchase budget a boost of P5.5 billion. If approved, this will expand the vaccine coverage to some 12 million Filipinos.

“If you look at the context, it’s very obvious why the biggest item is vaccines,” said House ways and means committee chair Albay Rep. Joey Salceda. “I don’t think there will be any argument that you need to fund vaccines beyond the P2 billion.”

The additional funds are on top of the P4 billion to be given to the Department of Labor and Employment to help workers displaced by the COVID-19 crisis; P2 billion for pandemic assistance to afflicted families; and P2 billion for the Health Facilities Enhancement Program of the DOH that the “small committee” claimed these agencies want added to their allocations.

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Unfortunately, the extra P5.5 billion for the vaccines and the added amounts for the pandemic response cannot be counted on just yet, due to questions raised by senators about the propriety and legality of tinkering with the budget plan after it had already been approved by the House for transmittal to the Senate by the first week of November.

According to Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who has long crusaded against “pork” insertions or earmarks by lawmakers, no matter the justification or fancy name attached to such tinkering—“institutional amendments” or “errata” by the line agencies—modifying the approved version of the 2021 General Appropriations Act is unconstitutional, contrary to the claim of House appropriations panel chair Rep. Eric Yap that such changes are legal.

Still, even if these questions are brushed aside and the added amount approved, the increased budget remains disturbingly short of not only what is required for vaccinating 20 million people, but also of the target set by the DOH itself, which said the government needs around P12.1 billion to inoculate priority populations, including frontline health workers and indigent Filipinos.

“Kulang tayo ng mga about P10.5 billion doon sa budget,” admitted Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire.

That the DOH, the main agency tasked to guide the country out of the stark public health crisis, did not get the budget it needs for the vaccines the Duterte administration has said it will rely on to finally release the country from quarantine restrictions and repair the tattered economy, speaks of the negligent, haphazard way the allocations were arrived at, and how public health is perplexingly given short shrift at a time like this.

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