The Department of Health (DOH) needs at least P76 billion to sustain the health-care workers’ COVID-19 benefits for the whole of 2023, DOH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said Thursday.
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III said nurses and doctors, whom he called the pandemic heroes, should not be made to bear the brunt of the budget cuts in the name of fiscal tightening.
Vergeire, officer-in-charge of the DOH, said the amount allocated for the health workers’ allowances would only cover six months of 2023.
The proposed 2023 national budget pegged the funds for public health emergency benefits and allowances at P20 billion.
“We will be needing around P76 billion for us to be able to sustain this provision of health-care workers’ benefits for 2023,” Vergeire told ANC’s “Headstart”.
“But we were just given a budget that could only last for about 6 months of next year,” she said.
Vergeire also disclosed that the agency had arrears of P64 billion for the retroactive payment of health emergency allowances (HEA) in 2021 and 2022. Medical frontliners are entitled to the HEA under Republic Act 11712.
“So, this would be the budget that we need right now so that we can appropriately provide benefits for our health-care workers,” she said.
A healthcare workers’ group on Tuesday staged a protest in front of the DOH’s central office in Manila over their unpaid COVID-19 benefits and to demand wage increase.
“Is this how we intend to reward the sacrifices of our pandemic heroes?” Pimentel lamented.
He noted that the healthcare workers deserve a raise, praise, and more benefits, not a budget cut.
To cut the health sector’s budget in the name of fiscal tightening, he said, is a mistake that can be proven costly, if not deadly.
He said the proposed budget slash is not a sound policy since there is a continuing pandemic.
“We should not aspire for more fiscal space at the expense of our doctors and nurses who sacrificed their lives health, and welfare in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic,” Pimentel said.
The Senate chief fiscalizer lamented the inadequate budget to fund the nurses’ salaries and benefits mandated by law as he vowed to scrutinize the Marcos administration’s first spending outlay.
The Senate Committee on Finance will start the examination next week of the proposed P5.268-trillion national budget for 2023.
In the National Expenditures Program for 2023, the Department of Health has been allocated P20 billion for public health emergency benefits and allowances. Another 19 billion has been set aside in the unprogrammed funds.
The funding for unprogrammed funds, Pimentel noted, may only be released when total revenues exceeded the target or through loan or aid.
He said that healthcare workers are entitled to benefits and allowances during the COVID-19 pandemic as mandated in Republic Act No. 11712 or the “Public Health Emergency Benefits and Allowances for Health Care Workers Act.”
Quoting from the law, Pimentel said “the State recognizes the critical role of healthcare workers in providing quality health care and ensuring disease prevention in the general population especially in times of national public health emergencies.”
Section 5 states that qualified healthcare workers are entitled to a health emergency allowance for every month of service and a compensation if they have contracted COVID-19 in the line of duty, he explained.
Pimentel said if the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) wants to create more fiscal space, then it should have examined carefully the lump-sum appropriations in the budget.
“Trim the intelligence funds, not the health sector’s budget,” he pointed out.
The Office of the President has been allotted P4.5 billion in confidential and intelligence funds while the Office of the Vice President has asked for P500 million confidential funds.
The figures do not include yet the confidential and intelligence funds lodged in other agencies, Pimentel said.
Pimentel vowed that the minority will scrutinize the proposed spending outlay for 2023 “to make things right for our nurses and doctors” and “to ensure accountability in the use of public funds.”