With 22 "yes" and zero negative votes, senators approved Wednesday on third and final reading the Senate version of the proposed P5-trillion national budget for 2022, which focuses on the government's COVID-19 pandemic response.
The members of the Senate and the House of Representatives will then meet in a bicameral conference to reconcile the conflicting budget provisions passed separately by both chambers.
Senate Finance committee chairperson Juan Edgardo Angara said their version of the national budget built on the gains in the past year in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said it would be responsive to new developments that emerged over the past few months.
The approved 2022 General Appropriations Bill puts a lot of weight on health and education, two sectors that continue to face heavy challenges brought about by the pandemic, Angara said.
While the country has progressed towards a gradual reopening of the economy as COVID cases continue to decline, he said the government could not afford to be complacent.
He cited the need for the government to continue its efforts towards strengthening its health system and responding to the continuously evolving virus.
“While there were changes in the details and allocation, the main goal of the proposed budget has not changed — to serve as the foremost means to continue the country's recovery from pandemic," said Angara, in reference to the amendments to the version of the measure approved by the House of Representatives.
“The situation is still developing. There is still much we don’t know yet about the new variant. We have to be prepared for the worst case scenario. But now that cases are quickly being identified across the world, thankfully we are still in a position to make sure that we will be ready, should the Omnicron variant reach our shores,” Angara added.
He emphasized that the Senate provided significant increases in the budget for the health sector, the bulk of which will go towards the government’s pandemic response led by the Department of Health.
He said the Senate made sure the benefits due to valiant health workers, both public and private, will continue to be provided under next year’s budget.
Funding was also provided for the DOH to continue its emergency hiring of health professionals and for the procurement of laboratory network commodities. (See full story online at manilastandard.net)
To ensure the government is on top of the new variants of COVID that have emerged, the Senate increased the budget of the DOH’s Epidemiology and Surveillance Program and for the operations of the national reference laboratories.
Recognizing the importance of the work of contact tracers, Angara said the Senate included funds for the hiring and training of 25,000 of them for next year.
In anticipation of the development of new treatments for COVID-19, the Senate provided significant funding for the purchase of drugs, medicines and vaccines that will be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
The Senate likewise augmented the budget for the Health Facilities Enhancement Program of the DOH, which shall be used for the construction, upgrading or expansion of government health care facilities and the purchase of hospital equipment.
“We also increased the budgets of the DOH-operated hospitals across the country so that more Filipinos who require medical attention, particularly those who need specialized services, will be accommodated. More indigent and financially-incapacitated patients will also receive the assistance they need with the Senate’s interventions in the 2022 budget,” Angara said.
Significant increases were also introduced in the budgets of the education agencies, including the state universities and colleges.
For education, Angara said increases were provided in the budgets of the Department of Education, State Universities and Colleges and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority to aid them in the implementation of more face-to-face classes.
Meanwhile, Sen. Panfilo Lacson has made public his proposed institutional amendments to the 2022 budget bill, seeking to slash questionable appropriations.
The standard bearer of Partido Reporma in 2022 Eleksyon said this would ensure enough funding for priority programs, activities and projects.
Lacson, who has served as a strict watchdog of the budget, proposed reducing funds for items such as farm-to-market roads and right-of-way payments to fund key programs on education, connectivity, anti-cybercrime and defense needs for the coming year.
His proposed amendments include some P300 million to improve the facilities in Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea, which he visited last Nov. 20.
One of Lacson's proposed amendments involves an increase for the "connectivity load" for teachers and DepEd personnel to deliver online lessons amid the pandemic.
Lacson likewise introduced a special provision allowing local government units to directly contract the services of transport cooperatives — empowering LGUs to co-implement, collect fares and co-finance service contracting.