The House of Representatives should call for a special session of Congress to approve an extension of the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act, the validity of which expires on June 30, the chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means recommended Friday.
Rep. Joey Sarte Salceda, the panel’s chairman, said funding for the contracts of contact tracers and human resources for health (HRH) hired under the package will also lapse with the law’s expiration.
The funding for health workers’ benefits is the most important consideration in passing the Bayanihan 3 law, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said.
“If we would be passing this possible budgetary requirement, this would be the most important to begin with. You cannot solve the economic problem unless you solve the health problem as well,” Recto emphasized.
In a letter to Speaker Lord Allan Velasco and Majority Leader and Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez, Salceda warned: “Without such extension, provinces potentially face a situation of having their contact tracing and healthcare response capacities drastically reduced for at least 26 days (from the June 30 expiry of contracts to July 26, the opening of session) during a period of COVID-19 case surges.”
“Local response teams and civil society groups have requested Congress to pass a bill providing for an extension of the appropriations and capacity to obligate and disburse funds until December 31, 2021,” he said.
“The extension is a matter of life and death in many communities, as contact tracers and augmented human resources for health (HRH) were hired under Bayanihan 2 contracts that will also expire by June 30,” Salceda wrote.
“Positivity rates are also above 5% in all regions. This is apart from the surges in Bicol, Visayas, and Mindanao,” he added.
As of May 31, and according to the financial report from the Department of Budget and Management on Bayanihan 2, over P18.4 billion in unobligated funds for critical pandemic response and recovery programs are about to expire.
“The funds that will expire include P6.6 billion for lab testing and HRH, and about P873 million for contact tracing. We still need those funds, especially with the surge in cases,” Salceda added.
Citing Article VI, Section 15 of the Rules of the House, Salceda said “The President may call a special session at any time.”
“This was invoked in passing the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act. The House and the Senate are also allowed by their respective rules to call for a special session without the President’s call,” Salceda wrote.
Section 86 of the Rules of the House provides that “The House, if not in session, shall convene without need of a call within twenty-four (24) hours following the proclamation of martial law or the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus or the occurrence of any national emergency.
Rule XIV, Section 42 of the Rules of the Senate also permits the Senate President to convene a special session without the President needing to call for one “to consider urgent legislative matters.”
“We can do it as Congress, but it would really be better if the President calls for the special session instead. I am sure he is open, since he has also been closely monitoring our situation in Albay,” Salceda said.
Salceda also wrote that “considering the need of the situation, the President’s concern for the emerging surge in cases, and the strategic importance of having a Senate bill certified as urgent by the President, action originating from the Executive branch would be a stronger, more effective move.”
“This is a life-or-death decision for many provinces. We can’t afford a month without contact tracing or with reduced health capacity,” Salceda added.
Earlier, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said a total of P66 billion is needed to fund the gap in government’s pandemic response.
Duque said this would include P51 billion to pay for active hazard duty pay, special risk allowance, insurance, and allowances for accommodation, transportation, and meals of more than 300,000 health workers.
Meanwhile, Sen. Cynthia Villar said hospitals in Las Piñas do not need additional health workers such as vaccinators and screeners since the local government and the private sector are helping in the pandemic response.
“We do not need such workers since we help the (Department of Health) DOH-operated hospital,” said Villar, adding that their barangays are also helping out.
She related that her husband — former Sen. Manny Villar, currently the country’s richest man — is even paying the salary of vaccinators.
“With our target, we might finish our vaccination by September. We can achieve that target without that much money from DOH,” Villar said.