The decision of the Philippine Red Cross (PRC) to suspend COVID-19 testing until the government pays it almost P1 billion in debt has hurt its ability to detect and report cases, the Department of Health (DOH) said Thursday.
In a media briefing, Health Undersecretary Dr. Maria Rosario Vergeire acknowledged the PRC’s contribution to the daily reports on COVID-19 cases.
The Red Cross laboratories account for about 25 percent of the country’s capacity for reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) testing. The organization accounted for over 1 million of the 4.3 million tests conducted as of Oct. 18,
The suspension of its COVID-19 testing has led airport authorities to limit the number of inbound passengers on international flights allowed at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NIAA) to 2,500 daily, down from 3,000, because of the loss of testing capacity.
The PRC earlier halted the conduct of tests chargeable to the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth), after the state insurer later failed to settle its outstanding balance of almost P1 billion.
The PRC said its PhilHealth-funded testing will remain suspended until the state insurer pays up.
Vergeire said in the meantime, the DOH has identified 11 government laboratories where the specimens can be processed to reduce the bottlenecks in the release of COVID-19 test results.
Some private laboratories, too, have expressed their interest to help out, she added.
The Palace earlier said it was optimistic that the PRC would resume its testing soon, after it agreed to accept an initial payment of the P930 million owed it.
The Department of Justice on Thursday said it is evaluating the P100 million memorandum of agreement entered into between PhilHealth and PRC for COVID-19 testing.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the DOJ is giving the review “preferential attention” and will come up with a legal opinion within the week.
Under the memorandum of agreement (MOA), PhilHealth reportedly made an advance payment of P100 million to the PRC for COVID-19 testing services despite laws mandating reimbursements instead.
According to Guevarra, PhilHealth chief Dante Gierran had requested an opinion on the MOA before PhilHealth "makes a decision to pay its indebtedness to the Phil Red Cross."
The Justice Secretary said the review is about the validity of the MOA and may result in liability on the part of those involved in the deal.
"We are not ruling out anything until we have completed a thorough review of the subject MOA and laws applicable to the said deal," he said, in a message to reporters.
PhilHealth said in a statement that it is still awaiting the legal opinion of the DOJ before paying PRC.
PhilHealth’s refusal to settle its obligation to the Red Cross for the COVID-19 tests it conducted resulted in the stranding of thousands of overseas Filipino workers.
In its Facebook page, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) earlier announced that manual encoding of swab samples have been implemented since Oct. 15.
“The PCG is in charge of collecting, manual encoding, and delivery of swab samples to laboratories," it said.
Because of the manual process, the PCG on Thursday said it has activated an IT team to improvise an automated encoding system. More frontline personnel were also deployed at the One-Stop Shops at NAIA, according to PCG's Facebook post.
Returning Filipinos may choose from the following options at the One-Stop Shops:
* Private laboratories with test results in 12 hours, or one day, or two days, that can be availed of for \P10,000, P7,000, and P4,000, respectively.
* Red Cross - results can be expected in two to three days, and can be availed of for P3,500 for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), and P4,000 for non-OFWs.
* Government laboratories - free of charge, and minimum of five days to get the result.
The Bureau of Quarantine will issue the swab test results, as well as the quarantine clearance for returning Filipinos, the PCG said.