Health workers from various hospitals protested Wednesday in front of the Department of Health (DOH) office in Manila demanding that Health Secretary Francisco Duque III resign over his failure to release long overdue benefits to medical frontliners during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The placards they carried also called for the ouster of President Rodrigo Duterte, who on Monday called frontline workers modern-day heroes.
Wearing personal protective equipment, the health workers demanded the release of their benefits including the special risk allowance (SRA), active hazard duty pay, and allowances for meals, accommodation, and transportation.
Hospital operations were not affected since participants in the rally were off-duty medical workers.
The health workers were joined by members of militant groups.
On Tuesday, the Department of Health (DOH) said it has disbursed over P237 million of the additional P311 million funds released for the COVID-19 SRA of an additional 20,000 health workers.
The P311 million was sent to DOH regional offices on Aug. 27, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said.
The protests pushed through despite Duterte’s Aug. 21 order to the DOH and the Department of Budget and Management to pay the already delayed allowances to frontliners within 10 days.
Under the Bayanihan law, public and private health workers directly catering to COVID-19 patients are entitled to an SRA not exceeding P5,000 a month from Dece. 20, 2020 to June 30, 2021.
The SRA will be on a prorated basis, depending on the number of days that the health care workers were on duty in a month.
Health workers said they will not abandon their patients even as they staged a mass protest.
Medical workers who did not join the rally because they were on duty wore red arm bands to show their support.
In an interview with TeleRadyo, Jose R. Reyes Memorial Medical Center employees’ union president Cristy Donguines said Duque should resign immediately out of delicadeza.
“Their excuse that they are still looking for funds is unacceptable. COA just said in its report that DOH has P11.9 billion in unused, unutilized budget. Yet they only released P311 million,” Donguines said.
National Kidney and Transplant Institute (NKTI) employees’ association president Edwin Pacheco said it is hurtful that they have to resort to mass mobilization for such a meager amount.
“We are fighting this pandemic. Why is the government depriving us of what is due us? We should not have to rally for our benefits,” Pacheco said.
The Filipino Nurses United (FNU) on Wednesday demanded that Duque and the DOH be held accountable for the failure to release the benefits due to medical frontliners.
The FNU, in a statement, said their group is in “extreme frustration” after the DOH failed once more to implement the benefits to ease the financial burden of nurses amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is outrageous that the DOH focused only on one benefit — special risk allowance (SRA) — when there are other delayed benefits,” the group said.
The nurses’ group pointed out the COA findings that P11.89 billion from the 2020 funds of the DOH remained unobligated, with the agency supposedly allocating billions of pesos to “questionable deals” and purchases.
The group added that the P311 million worth of SRAs allegedly released by the DOH targeted only 20,000 more health workers, which is far from the 500,000 targeted health workers.
According to FNU, for 2021 alone, more than 103 health workers have died and more than 28,000 have been infected.
Robert Mendoza, Alliance of Health Workers (AHW) national president, said the deadline they set with the DOH to grant our COVID-19 benefits is finally over.
“Our patience with Secretary Duque is also over. A year has passed, but the basic problem confronting health workers in relation to the COVID-19 issue remains. Enough is enough! Now, let him face our collective call for him to step down and be accountable for his wrongdoings especially in ensuring our health, safety and welfare,” he said.
He noted that Duque and President Duterte were wrong in thinking that the growing anger of the health workers can only be appeased by providing “a meager budget which only few have received.”
Benjamin Santos, AHW secretary-general, said the fight was not just a matter of fulfilling the economic needs of the health workers, but rather a fight for justice.
“We are deprived of our rights to avail what is provided by law. We, health workers became victims of Secretar Duque’s failure, gross negligence and incompetence in providing quality health that we all deserve,” he said.
Earlier, health workers from Fabella Hospital and Research Institute for Tropical Medicine conducted their own protests to demand for the release of their benefits.
Health frontline workers in St. Luke’s Medical Center in Quezon City are still waiting for their SRAs. However, only a few medical workers will receive it.
DOH had said only medical workers who have direct contact with COVID-19 patients will receive their SRA under Bayanihan 2 law, which expired in June 2021.
The DOH had appealed to health workers to cancel their planned protests for fear that the health system would be at risk.
The Anakpawis partylist joined hundreds of health workers from public and private hospitals in a coordinated protest to assert their much-delayed economic benefits promised by the government under the Bayanihan program.
“The anger and frustration of our health workers are justified. Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and President Rodrigo Duterte are guilty of criminal neglect for abandoning our weary health workers,” said Anakpawis President Ariel Casilao.
“Health workers have all the right to protest and demand what is due to them. They took to the streets today because Malacanang and DOH repeatedly failed to address their just demands and grievances. Health workers are our front liners in this battle against COVID, yet their pleas are being ignored,” the Anakpawis leader said.
Photos by Danny Pata and Norman Cruz