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16 hospitals don’t receive ‘risk pay’

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Nurses treating COVID-19 patients in at least 16 hospitals have yet to receive their benefits, including hazard pay as required by law, the national organization for the profession said Wednesday.

Willie Casas, Maricel V Cruz, Rio N. Araja
FULL HOUSE. Medical health workers help a patient disembark from an ambulance outside the Manila COVID-19 Field Hospital at the  Quirino Grandstand in Manila, on August 18, 2021. The 344-bed capacity field hospital already has admitted 306 patients for an 89% occupancy rate, nearing full capacity. Norman Cruz

These included Metro Manila hospitals Chinese General Hospital, Delos Santos Medical Center, Metropolitan Medical Center, the Pasig City COVID Referral Center, Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, San Lazaro Hospital, and St. Luke’s Medical Center in Quezon City and Bonifacio Global City, said Jocelyn Andamo, secretary-general of Filipino Nurses United.

Nurses in Ace Medical Center in Cebu, Alcala Municipal Hospital in Cagayan Valley, Camiguin General Hospital, the Cebu Provincial Hospital in Danao City, Dagupan Doctors Villaflor Memorial Hospital, Divine Word Hospital, and Pampanga District Hospital have also not been paid their benefits, Andamo said.

She added that nurses deployed to the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and district hospitals in Cebu have also not been given their hazard pay.

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Andamo said this was a partial list, as the organization is still conducting an online survey of its members.

She said the nurses in these hospitals sought their help to let the government know that they have yet to receive their Special Risk Allowance (SRA), active hazard pay, and other benefits, even though they had been assigned to COVID wards and patients.

“They were told there was no budget,” Andamo said.

But Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said only health care workers with direct contact with COVID-19 patients are entitled to SRAs.

“We have a validation process, so our hospital chiefs need to validate these. We cannot just give[the allowances]. This needs to be validated by medical center chiefs,” Duque said.

The DOH presented a slide showing the following payments made to health workers, with P522 million going to SRAs, P946 million in hazard pay and P62.7 million in sickness and death benefits from March 24 to June 24, 2020 under Bayanihan 1, and P3.2 billion for SRAs, P3.3 billion in hazard pay, P487 million in sickness and death benefits, and P1.3 billion for meals, accommodations and transportation from Sept. 15 to Dec. 19, 2020 under Bayanihan 2.

But Senator Richard Gordon and other senators, along with Commission on Audit (COA) chairman Michael Aguinaldo, said the DOH should be liberal in paying SRAs and other benefits to hospital workers.

“DOH should have granted SRAs to all health care workers amid the pandemic, regardless whether they had direct contact with the COVID wards or not,” they said.

Since hospitals are considered “dangerous areas” for the coronavirus, Gordon said all persons working in a hospital should be entitled to hazard pay. “They are all exposed to COVID-19 although they do not have direct contact with COVID-19 patients.”

Duque said the DOH earlier fought for all health care workers to receive SRAs, but he said the laws do not cover this.

“If only we can pay all employees of the hospital. We fought for this when the law was being drafted. We fought for them,” he said.

If all health care employees would be granted SRAs, he said frontliners would receive smaller amounts.

“We agree and my problem is that the resources, once shared across many more individuals or healthcare workers, maybe what they receive won’t have much impact.”

But Aguinaldo said the DOH took part in drafting the guidelines, and it could have included all health care employees in the coverage.

“Normally when you issue a law and it provides for certain benefits for employees, the implementing guidelines are usually prepared by the DOH, so it’s I guess within the power of the DOH to a certain extent to determine who should be covered,” he said.

Duque told the Senate panel, chaired by Gordon, that he will look into the issues raised by the health care workers.

“We will look into this to establish what went wrong, what were the problems and address this issue,” Duque said. He and other DOH officials blamed the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) for the delayed release of the health workers’ additional benefits.

In her presentations, Health Assistant Secretary Maylene Beltran noted the DBM gave them only five days to obligate and disburse the P9.7 billion SRA for the medical frontliners.

Since the DBM released the Special Allotment Release Order (SARO) for the SRA on June 25, Beltran said they had only five days to disburse and obligate the funds as the Bayanihan 2 Law would expire on June 30.

She said they had only a few days to settle all the memoranda of agreement and to speak with the private sector. “On top of that, we needed to talk to different LGU hospitals too,” Beltran said.

Asked if the DBM was the cause of delay, both Duque and Beltran replied “yes.”

Beltran also pointed out that June 25 was a Friday so they coordinated with partner-hospitals nationwide on a weekend.

Gordon said disbursing billions of pesos in SRAs nationwide could not be done in just five days.

Still, he took both the DOH and DBM for the lack of vision in performing their duties on the disbursement of funds for medical frontliners.

DBM officer-in-charge Tina Rose Canda, on the other hand, said the DOH took 13 days to sign a joint circular for the guidelines on the grant of SRAs.

Canda said the Office of the President has released an administrative order on June 1 for the guidelines of the SRAs.

She said DBM received the AO on June 3 and it was signed by former Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado the same day.

“It took until June 16 for the DOH to sign the joint circular. After that, the submission of the request was made on June 23. We cannot release [funds] without the request,” she related.

Senator Juan Edgardo Angara, meanwhile, said the funds intended for health workers’ benefits could still be released as long as the national emergency declared by President Duterte exists.

Although most of the provisions under Bayanihan 2 lapsed on June 30, 2021, he said the provision on the benefits for health workers can still be given so long as the national emergency, as declared by the President, is enforced.

“I think that is an important point, that as long as the national emergency is there and it has not been withdrawn by the President, there is legal basis under Bayanihan 2 to give those benefits,” Angara said. 

Senator Risa Hontiveros raised three points covered by the COA’s audit report on the DOH’s use of pandemic funds.

“First, I want to ask about the P42-billion fund transfer for COVID-19 programs,” Hontiveros said, noting that the money was provided to the implementing agencies without a memorandum of agreement and other documents.

She also inquired into the programs implemented and how they were implemented.

“There is money, but do we know where it went?” Hontiveros said.

She said that while nearly P12 billion was set aside for benefits like SRA and active hazard duty pay, this fund had remained unused.

She said health care workers used their own money because they were not covered by hazard pay and risk allowance.

Worse, she said, health care workers who contracted COVID-19 had not received their due compensation although they had complied with all the requirements.

Lastly, Hontiveros said she wanted to know why DOH had P95 million worth of expired drugs.

She noted the DOH had a problem with this bulk supply of perishable drugs in their warehouses, and the COA audit showed that it still had not solved this problem.

Despite its failure to spend money earmarked for the purpose, the DOH on Wednesday said it has requested additional funds amounting to P3.6 billion for the SRA of health workers.

In an interview on Unang Balita, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said they made the request to the DBM in April and were still waiting for a response.

Like Duque, Vergeire said the release of the benefits had to undergo a process.

She added that the DOH had sent P9 billion to its regional offices and hospitals for SRA on June 30.

The requested funds would be used for the benefits of health care workers who submitted their requirements after June 30, she said.

President Duterte has ordered the DOH to prioritize the payment of allowances and other benefits due to the country’s health workers amid protests over the delays.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Gordon defended the COA, which flagged the DOH for P67 billion in mismanaged funds, and told Duque not to be “hysterical” in claiming that the audit agency had “destroyed” their reputation.

“Sorry, Secretary Duque, I do not agree with your statement that you were destroyed,” Gordon said at the hearing.

Gordon said the COA was only doing its job and the DOH was given time to respond and reconcile the observations made by the state auditors.

“We are a government of laws and we judge based on due process,” Gordon said.

Aguinaldo said the DOH was given 60 days to act on the COA’s recommendations.

Appearing before the House hearing on the same issue on Tuesday, Duque turned emotional and accused COA of destroying the DOH. He assailed state auditors for their allegedly “unfair and painful” audit report.

In the House hearing, Duque blurted out, “You destroyed us, you destroyed the DOH’s dignity, you destroyed us all.”

Duque also related that since the COA audit reports came out, he has been deprived of sleep.

“We are all sleep deprived here. This is not a contest on which agency works the hardest or who is the most exhausted and in the most pitiful situation,” Hontiveros replied.

She insisted that if there’s anything destroyed in this pandemic, it’s the livelihood and future of millions of ordinary citizens.

Senator Bong Revilla said Duque should not be emotional when issues within his agency are flagged.

“This is not the time to be emotional. We need to be rational. We need to be judicious,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri also took the cudgels for COA, saying the role of state auditors “is essential for good governance.”

“We are not here to tear the DOH down. We are here to help the DOH, on how we can spend the money efficiently, effectively,” Zubiri said.

He said COA reports can be used as a guide on how the agency can improve.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the pandemic is not an excuse to do away with transparency and noted how the DOH transferred some P42 billion to the procurement service of the DBM without proper documentation.

“These are unaccounted, unliquidated transfers… are susceptible to corruption as they easily become invisible,” Drilon said.

Senator Grace Poe added: “Shouldn’t Secretary Duque be suspended by now if you’re going to apply the same judgment as what happened to the PhilHealth executives?”

Poe pointed out that Ombudsman Samuel Martires ordered the preventive suspension of eight PhilHealth executives and five DOH officials last year for various offenses related to the use of people’s money during the pandemic.

“The fact that we can’t even go out of our homes—are we happy with what is happening? Are the medical frontliners happy with what is happening to them? Somebody must be held accountable,” Poe said.

Senator. Joel Villanueva said he believes the bottom line is accountability.

Senator Francis Pangilinan said while doctors and nurses are tired and scrambling to work, reports of funds mismanagement and possible corruption were demoralizing.

In the House, Deputy Speaker Rufus Rodriguez dismissed Duque’s claim that the COA report had damaged the agency’s image and morale. He said the absence of a “final judgement” on the report rendered Duque’s claim baseless.

On the other hand, he said, P67 billion in mismanaged funds was a big amount and must be taken seriously.

In a related development, Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate urged and the Office of the Ombudsman to probe whether the supposed savings of the government are being used as pork barrel. Zarate was referring to the National Budget Circular 586 which collects the expected savings from the 2020 General Appropriations Act.

Willie Casas, Maricel V Cruz, Rio N. Araja
The situation is more critical at the Pasay City General Hospital which has erected signage announcing a “full capacity” also on Wednesday, August 18, 2021. In the PCGH Facebook message, the hospital apologizes to the residents of Pasay because as of August 17, 2021, ICU,  the emergency room, and the COVID-19 ward are fully occupied. Danny Pata

In other developments:

* Pangilinan on Tuesday filed a still unnumbered Senate bill which is to be known as the “Health Care Frontliners Protection Act” that would institutionalize additional benefits for public and private health care workers in direct contact with persons affected by the disease during public health emergencies.

* The COA flagged the DBM for supposed overpriced health-care products and the lack of a clear policy on handling inventories that resulted in P95.46 million worth of “slow-moving” COVID-19 supplies. In a 2020 audit report, state auditors said the DBM’s Procurement Service ordered 113.95 million pieces of surgical masks and 1.32 million pieces of face shields in April and May 2020, at a time when prices were high because of demand. The face masks were bought from different suppliers between P13.50 and P27.72 per piece. The face shields were procured for P120 each.

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