Thousands of employees and their dependents would be denied the opportunity to be inoculated against COVID-19 under a leaked draft proposal from the Department of Health (DOH) that would bar tobacco, infant milk formula, soda and alcoholic beverage companies from participating in the government’s vaccine procurement program, lawmakers said Sunday.
The lawmakers, from both chambers of Congress, slammed the proposal for being discriminatory, unlawful and an overreach by the DOH as the lead agency in the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) and the National Task Force Against COVID-19 (NTF).
Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, chairman of the House committee on ways and means, said the DOH draft order practically stops the cash-strapped government from receiving any form of assistance from the private sector.
“There seems to be nothing in the law that prevents the kind of interactions required to sign vaccine agreements. The DOH is really stretching its authority here, and every rule they are introducing on top of all the others seems to just complicate our response without getting anything meaningful against COVID-19 done,” he said.
Under the DOH draft, which is being routed for approval by member agencies of the NTF, firms that produce and sell products that pose health risks to the public shall be barred from partnering with the government in procuring or donating vaccines to their employees and families.
Marikina City Rep. Estella Quimbo, a senior member of the House committee on ways and means, urged the DOH not to be too hasty in rejecting private sector participation, which can deliver the much-needed push for a broader vaccination roll-out.
“We are fortunate that we have a proactive private sector that has expressed willingness to co-finance the vaccine program and will, in effect, protect as many Filipinos as possible. The proposed policy of preventing companies that are deemed to be engaged in activities that are contrary to public health reflects a misappreciation by its proponents of the public health mandate of the DOH during a pandemic,” she said.
Muntinlupa City Rep. Ruffy Biazon, an anti-smoking advocate, said instead of banning private entities which may be related to the said “barred” industries, DOH “should just make it conditional that the vaccines will not be used in any way to directly or indirectly promote or distribute products of those industries.”
“DOH should be thinking of ways how to go around hurdles to vaccine procurement and distribution, instead of being the one putting up obstacles,” he said.
Bagong Henerasyon party-list Rep. Bernadette Herrera slammed the DOH plan to exclude tobacco and milk formula companies.
“It’s clear from that provision that the DOH is discriminating against companies it perceives to be in conflict with interest of public health,” she said.
Manila Rep. Bienvenido Abante said any help from the private sector must be welcomed by government agencies to speed up the attainment of the goals of the vaccination campaign.
“Any policy that runs counter to this objective, such as barring particular companies from securing vaccines, should be seriously reconsidered by the DOH,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon warned the DOH that barring several companies from procuring vaccines for their employees is patently “illegal and unauthorized” and can expose them to legal liabilities.
“I am deeply disturbed by this report. If indeed such a draft administrative order exists, that is a clear violation of the COVID-19 Vaccination Act of 2021. Such a policy is discriminatory and morally unacceptable. The DOH does not have the authority to do that,” Drilon said in a statement on Sunday.
In the alleged draft administrative order circulating on the social media, “the NTF, together with the DOH shall review the requests of private entities to procure vaccines to ensure that private entities who will be part of the agreement are not in any way related to the tobacco industry, products covered under EO 51 series of 1986 or the 'National Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, Breastmilk Supplement and Other Related Products' or other industries in conflict with public health.”
Drilon, a former Justice secretary, said the administrative order would be unlawful.
“The law does not discriminate against or exclude companies based on their products, services or lines of business. The supposed administrative order, therefore, is discriminatory and it would go beyond the law and would constitute an actionable wrong,” he said.
“Who is playing God here once more?” Drilon asked. “Please stop playing God. This is not the time for politics and selfish agenda. It is our moral responsibility to share the vaccine.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said the NTF was “legislating by the implementing rules and regulations.”
"This legislation by IRR is a bad habit by bureaucrats who imagine themselves as the third chamber of Congress," he said.
"No such provision exists in the COVID-19 Vaccination Program Act of 2021 or Republic Act No. 11525," he added.
Party-list Rep. Mike Defensor on Sunday echoed Recto's charge, saying the DOH was usurping the power of Congress.
“Congress never meant to discriminate against any industry when we passed the law establishing the COVID-19 vaccination program, precisely because we recognize that government needs the help of the entire private corporate sector in quickly immunizing as many Filipinos as possible,” he said.
“We are now dealing with the defining health and socio-economic crisis of our time. We need all hands on deck in suppressing this pandemic,” he added.
Employers Confederation of the Philippines president Sergio Ortiz-Luis Jr. on Sunday said allowing businesses to buy the vaccines for their own employees would help the government, as it would no longer have to shoulder the cost of the vaccines for these workers.
The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, meanwhile, called on the government to allow the private sector to import and buy COVID-19 vaccines directly from accredited sources without restrictions or conditions.
The DOH said the draft order was not final and said they were “still in the process of reconciling the proposed provisions with other existing laws and guidelines.”
“The DOH emphasizes that the national government commits to provide all Filipinos equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines following the prioritization criteria and list approved by the Inter-Agency Task on Emerging Infectious Diseases,” the DOH said.
“Any provisions that may be perceived to discriminate against any sector of the population from accessing COVID-19 vaccines [are] not considered in any policy, guideline, protocol that shall be issued by this government,” the DOH added.
The contents of the draft IRR were based on recommendations coming from different stakeholders, the department said, and all comments and recommendations from different stakeholders are still welcome until the finalization and approval of the IRR, the DOH said.