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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Senators seek hike in public health budget

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Senators sought to raise allocations for public health emergencies and the allowances of health and non-health workers on Wednesday during the chamber’s deliberation for the P5.268-trillion national budget next year.

Senate Minority Leader Koko Pimentel sought to increase to P52 billion the allowances for the two sectors from P18.9 billion in the proposed budget.

But Pimentel questioned why these items were in the “unprogrammed funds” portion of the national budget, “considering this is an important allocation. For the past years, these funds have been unused.”

He sounded the alarm that if these P34 billion in funds will not be used, they could potentially become “parking funds.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sonny Angara explained they were in the “unprogrammed funds” since these allocations are dependent on a public health emergency.

Angara said there is no guarantee that in 2023, there will still be this health declaration like there is today with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Without a state of public health emergency next year, Angara said the funds will be wasted because it is stated in a special provision of Republic Act 11712 or the Public Health Emergency, Benefits and Allowance for Health Care Workers Act that this can still be used it pay arrears or debts on the benefits of health workers since 2020.

Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros underscored the need to have a supplemental budget for these purposes for 2023.

Hontiveros cited the earlier statement of Socioeconomic Planning chief Arsenio Balisacan that it is crucial to support the needs of the poorest sectors and families.

Hontiveros asked Angara if there is a budget version to give better support to the poor aside from those already allocated for them.

Meanwhile, Pimentel questioned the country’s huge annual borrowings, which he said were more than the national budget.

Angara, however, said the low-interest borrowings would form a buffer fund for the government.

The country’s debt is pegged at P13.5 trillion—more than the proposed P5.268 trillion budget for 2023.

In 2023, Angara said, the country will pay off P1.5 trillion in debt, which includes the principal and interest.

He said out of the P5.268 trillion budget, P3.6 trillion can be earned and P 1.6 trillion will be borrowed.

Angara said the country’s debt will likely balloon to P13.5 trillion by 2024.

Pimentel quipped: “It means we keep on paying our debt but the debt of our country is not reduced.”

Angara said the country’s debt will remain more or less at P13.5 trillion in the foreseeable future, but said he hoped it would go down after the Marcos administration, in line with the Medium-Term Fiscal Framework.

Pimentel also questioned the P9.3 billion in confidential and intelligence funds in next year’s budget.

These funds are in the Office of the Vice President, P500 million; Department of Education (DepEd), P150 million; and the Office of the Solicitor General, P19.2 million.

Instead of giving these agencies confidential and intelligence funds, Congress should allocate the money for programs on food, housing, and other assistance, Pimentel said.

But Angara said this was not the first time that confidential or intelligence funds were given to the said three government agencies.

Without offering any details, he said these are needed for the country’s security.

He also said they provided the agencies with the flexibility to deal with contingencies.

Pimentel said if confidential funds will be given to these agencies, they should be mandated to submit to Congress an accomplishment report on where the funds were used.

Angara said the DepEd budget for 2023 can be used to ensure the safety of students and personnel from COVID-19.

In other budget-related developments:

• Senator Francis Tolentino asked the country’s financial managers why the National Capital Region (NCR) always gets the biggest share of the national budget amid efforts to reduce the gap between the various regions. Tolentino said that based on the regional allocation of the expenditure program for 2023, Metro Manila is set to receive the highest allocation representing 18.8 percent of the P5.286 trillion budget amounting to almost P989 billion.

• Senator Robinhood C. Padilla asked about the government’s implementation of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), particularly its provisions for improving the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao’s (BARMM) fiscal capacity. Padilla stressed that the BOL created the Intergovernmental Fiscal Policy Board (IFPB) to regularly review revenue imbalances and changes in the region’s financial needs, including the annual block grant prescribed by law. He asked the Department of Budget and Management for its report and legislative recommendations to help boost BARMM’s revenue-generating capacity.

• Senator Cynthia Villar asked if there was a way to control the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA) from actions that are contrary to the public good. Villar took the floor Wednesday to question the PRA’s change of name from Public Estates Authority which, in effect, “institutionalizes the bad practice of reclamation, especially with the worsening effect of climate change.”

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