'Order of priorities' questioned as DBM slashes 2021 budget of DOH

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 18) — Lawmakers at the House of Representatives on Friday questioned the funds slashed from the proposed 2021 budget of the Department of Health (DOH) especially after the country’s struggles to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the deliberations of the House Committee on Appropriations on the DOH budget for next year, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said the department originally submitted to the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) a ₱45 billion budget proposal for its Health Facilities Enhancement Program (HFEP), which aims to upgrade public healthcare infrastructure

However, only ₱4.7 billion was approved for the program, according to Duque.

He said another ₱5.5 billion was authorized, but it is under the unprogrammed fund, and the money could only be released if there are additional revenues.

Duque then asked the House of Representatives to add ₱10 billion to the HFEP allocation as he noted the budget cut may negatively impact the implementation of the universal healthcare program as well as the COVID-19 response.

“As a consequence of the reduction, our goal in the implementation of COVID-19 response and the universal healthcare program will be significantly affected with delays in functionality, licensing and accreditation of healthcare facilities due to the lack of infrastructure and equipment,” the health chief said.

For its part, the DBM said the HFEP allocation was slashed because of its “slow implementation” in the previous years despite the huge funds released to the DOH.

“Since 2008 ... our records show that only 56% of the allotment provided to them has been disbursed,” DBM Director Mary Anne dela Vega said in the same budget briefing.

Funds for the purchase of the coronavirus vaccines also suffered cuts.

Health Undersecretary Myrna Cabotaje said the DOH requested ₱12.9 billion for the procurement of potential COVID-19 vaccines, but only ₱2.5 billion was granted by DBM.

Cabotaje said they could get a loan from the Land Bank of the Philippines to cover the remaining budget requirements.

Rep. Carlos Zarate also lamented the decrease in the budgets of the COVID-19 referral hospitals Lung Center of the Philippines and Philippine Children’s Medical Center (PCMC).

The budget of the Lung Center was cut by ₱10 million, while the PCMC budget was reduced by P200 million.

Zarate also pointed out a smaller budget for the program to strengthen the DOH's epidemiology bureau, which has a key role in the health crisis.

He asked: “Are these not important and related to the issue of pandemic?”

Health Undersecretary Mario Villaverde said the DBM has given the DOH a budget ceiling and that not all of their requests were accommodated.

Order of priorities

Quezon Rep. Angelina Tan decried the “order of priorities” of the economic managers in the appropriations bill for 2021.

Tan, who is also chairperson of the House Committee on Health, noted that the DOH only has the fifth highest budget for next year.

“Our experience with the COVID-19 pandemic should have been a wake up call to our economic managers that we should have put more weight on the health needs of the country,” Tan said.