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DOT head wants cheaper virus test to entice tourists

Department of Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat has appealed for a price cap on real-time reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction and antigen tests for Covid-19 to enhance tourism revival, as the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases relaxed travel restrictions in areas under general community quarantine.

“The DOT supports the call to impose a price cap on RT-PCR and antigen testing to make traveling an affordable option for all. While the DOT acknowledges and puts paramount importance on the safety of visitors, locals, and the tourism workforce, the department likewise finds it imperative to address the urgent need to impose a price cap on these accepted Covid-19 testing methods to promote domestic tourism, which in turn can generate employment and stimulate economic recovery,” she said.

In a bid to attract more travelers to help bring back jobs and livelihood to tourism areas, Puyat has asked for cooperation among the Department of Health-accredited testing facilities to make the tests more affordable.

“We likewise appeal to the accredited test centers to provide budget-friendly but credible Covid-19 diagnostic tests,” Puyat said.

The IATF-EID has authorized the DOT to take the helm in accrediting procedures, facilities, and activities, as well as set determining operating capacities for tourism establishments.

This is concerning the issuance of Resolution No. 79 on eased interzonal and intrazonal travel restrictions and prescribed minimum health standards amidst the public health challenges posed by Covid-19.

This developed as Philippine Red Cross chairman Senator Richard Gordon on Tuesday said the government should look into the increasing prices of COVID-19 tests in airports.

"Buti sinabi ng President 'yung corruption. Siguro dapat tingnan 'yan dahil biglang nagtaasan doon sa airport 'yung mga test at marami na ngayong nagte-test doon. Balita ko sa labas ginagawa... Ang test nila umaabot ng hanggang P20,000 kung madalian talaga," Gordon said in television interview.

"Ang pinupuntirya nila 'yung mga OFW, dual citizenship at saka mga foreigner. Sasabihin nila within 24 hours map-tetest namin kayo, bayad kayo ng P12,000," he added.

"Ngayon lang kami nagpunta sa airport. Ayaw namin makialam doon eh. Napilitan kami dahil lumalabas nagko-complain sa amin, ginagamit pa 'yung aming stationary ng ibang magtetest. Sinasabi Philippine Red Cross sila. Nung nagpunta kami balita ko medyo nagdahan-dahan sila pero tumitira pa rin 'yang mga 'yan," Gordon added.

Gordon said the surge in prices of COVID-19 tests offered by the private sector was observed at airports in Metro Manila, Cebu, and Clark.

Gordon showed screenshots of messages from some of his sources complaining over higher prices of COVID-19 tests conducted by the private sector which ranges from P7,000 to P20,000.

"The government can control it," Gordon said when asked who should regulate the price of the services.

The PRC has temporarily stopped accepting samples for PhilHealth-funded COVID-19 tests since October 14 due to an unsettled debt of the state health insurer, which Gordon said has already reached P1.1 billion.

But PhilHealth said last Friday that it would pay off its debt to the PRC for COVID-19 tests this week.

However, the state insurer said its payments to the humanitarian organization would be subject to the completeness of billing requirements submitted by the PRC, and in compliance with Commission on Audit rules.

The PRC conducts 30 percent of the total COVID-19 tests performed nationwide.

Gordon said the PRC has already resumed its COVID-19 testing services at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, but testing will be charged to the travelers being tested as PhilHealth) has yet to completely pay off its debt.

Earlier, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration said the government is offering free COVID-19 testing for arriving OFWs.

"Ito po ay libre. ‘Yung buong proseso na dini-describe ko ay libre," OWWA Administrator Hans Leo Cacdac said.

"Nababalitaan nga po namin na may mga private laboratories daw na nandoon sa NAIA (Ninoy Aquino International Airport)," he added.

Cacdac said Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III and Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade have ordered an investigation into the operation of private laboratories inside the airport.

But Cacdac admitted that they have received reports that private laboratories are offering the service to arriving OFWs for a fee.

“Nababalitaan nga po namin na may mga private laboratories daw na nandoon sa NAIA (Ninoy Aquino International Airport),” he said.

Despite the issue between PRC and PhilHealth, Cacdac gave the assurance that medical technology personnel of the Philippine Coast Guard will continue collecting swab samples from OFWs as they arrive in the airport.

Cacdac said the samples will now be processed in 17 national and local laboratories.

The tests covered by PhilHealth include those for returning overseas Filipino workers, frontline health and government workers, individuals through mega swabbing facilities and local government units, and others included in the expanded testing guidelines of the DOH.

In a related development, the Manila International Airport Authority urged arriving Filipino air travelers to inform proper authorities if they are being coerced or forcibly asked to use the services of private laboratories and pay huge amount of money for the immediate COVID-19 test results.

The airport authority made the appeal on the heels of reports that returning Overseas Filipino Workers stranded at terminals are being asked to pay in the amount ranging from P7,000 to P20,000 in exchange for faster swab test results.

"We ask that you kindly report the incident so that appropriate action may be taken," the MIAA said.

In a statement, the One-Stop Shop (OSS) - which conducts RT-PCR tests for OFWs at terminals of Ninoy Aquino International Airport - clarified there is no truth in the reports now circulating on social media.

The OSS explained that it conducts RT-PCR test for OFWs for free because the fees are being shouldered by the national government.

"OFWs need not spend any amount for the COVID-19 test since the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration covers this expense. The result of the test normally takes about two to three days," it added.

For non-OFWs, there are two private laboratories that cater to the RT-PCR test. They are Philippine Airline and its partner laboratory, Detoxicare for NAIA Terminal 2, and Philippine Airport Ground Support Solutions, Inc. with partner laboratory Ph Airport Diagnostic Lab for Terminals 1 and 3.

MIAA officials said both private laboratories started operations in July, and are covered by a Memorandum of Agreement with the Task Group on Management of Returning Oversease Filipinos.

The private laboratories charge a fee of P4,000, as approved by the task force, and issue results within 48 hours.

All transactions with the private laboratories are covered by official receipts and are properly accounted, recorded and reported with the OSS.

"There are, however, extreme cases (i.e. death in the family or emergency medical condition. etc) when OFWs request for swab test with PAL or PAGSS for faster results and clearance. In such cases, the OFWs have to seek clearance first from OWWA. When cleared, the request is communicated with the OSS," the airport management stated.

The OSS is a joint initiative of various government agencies led by the DOTr to help OFWs in the processing of swab testing as required by the government amid the coronavirus disease pandemic.

It also assists OFWs in identifying possible isolation facilities where they may take their mandatory isolation until the quarantine certificates are released, to ensure their well-being, and to prevent the spread of the deadly disease.

Aside from MIAA, OWWA and DOTr, other agencies involved in OSS are Department of Tourism, Department of Social Welfare and Development, Coast Guard, Maritime Industry Authority, Office for Transportation Security, Department of Foreign Affairs, National Police, and the Bureau of Quarantine.

The Department of Health recently announced that Returning Filipinos from countries classified with low- to middle-prevalence of COVID-19 are no longer required to undergo coronavirus testing.

DOH undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said returning Filipinos from low-risk countries will not be required to undergo testing at points of entry, provided that they would strictly follow the minimum health standards and pass the symptoms screening.

But according to the airport authority, there is no resolution or official implementing rules and regulations on the said policy but merely a "verbal statement" from the DOH.

Topics: Department of Tourism , Bernadette Romulo-Puyat , COVID-19 , Richard Gordon , Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases
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