Malacanang said Monday it would let Congress conduct a probe on the Department of Health’s “deficiencies” after several lawmakers questioned the agency’s handling of its over â‚±67-billion COVID-19 pandemic response funds.
The probe was triggered by the Commission on Audit’s 2020 report on the alleged deficiencies in DOH’s management of the funds due to non-compliance with pertinent laws.
Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said the Palace could not do anything because conducting investigations was part of Congress’s functions.
“There’s nothing we can do about Congress’s decision because it is an independent branch of government. It is really their duty and responsibility to conduct that kind of an investigation,” he added.
This developed as the group Filipino Nurses United said its mass resignation plan was still in place along with a mass protest if the congressional probe failed to ensure the delivery of the delayed claims and benefits for health workers from the government.
In an interview with CNN Philippines, FNU secretary general Jocelyn Andamo said the group did not count on their dialogue with the DOH to get their benefits since the agency already knows the issues health workers, including nurses, have raised since the start of the pandemic.
Andamo said they had met with Health officials several times, including a meeting in the presence of President Rodrigo Duterte and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, “but still our demands remained unmet.”
FNU is hoping their complaints are taken up in the Senate hearing scheduled today, and in the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
“Many nurses in the provinces are already tired of not receiving their benefits from the government. They are still scared of being at risk for COVID-19. During the whole pandemic, we have experienced problems like understaffing, a lack of proper protection, contractualization, and insufficient benefits,” Andamo said in Filipino.
“Not giving health workers our special risk allowances is just a precipitating factor,” she added.
The COA earlier flagged the DOH for alleged deficiencies in the management of P67.3 billion funds related to its coronavirus response efforts last year. It noted that these were supposedly due to non-compliance with laws and regulations that led to missed opportunities to address the pandemic.
President Rodrigo Duterte repeatedly defended Duque despite calls from senators to fire him. He even called Duque a “hero” of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
The DOH on Monday denied the agency failed to release monetary benefits for health workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The DOH spent P10.85 billion for the special risk allowance (SRA) of 740,958 health workers, and another P4.24 billion for the hazard pay of 864,843 frontliners, Health Undersecretary Leopoldo Vega said.
“It is very unfortunate for us to be in a situation wherein there is a call for mass resignation,” he said in an online press conference.
Health care workers who failed to receive their special risk allowance and hazard pay may have lacked several requirements to avail themselves of these monetary benefits, Vega said.
Aside from the risk allowance and hazard pay, the DOH said it also disbursed P1.3 billion for meals, accommodation, and transportation of medical frontliners, and another P549.7 million for sickness and death claims.
Vega believes there may be a disarray in the process in their Regional Offices for distribution of funding to local government units’ hospitals and the private hospitals.
This means they need to put in the Master list the names of HCWs who directly handled COVID-19 cases.
Based on the presentation of Vega, the DOH had paid HCWs P552 million in SRAs, P946 million in hazard pay and P62.7 million in sickness and death benefits from March 24 to June 24, 2020 under Bayanihan 1.
Under Bayanihan 2 funding, the amounts are P3.2 billion for SRA, P3.3 billion for hazard pay, P487 million for sickness and death benefits, and P1.3 billion for meals, accommodations, and transportation from Sept. 15 to Dec. 19, 2020.
Meanwhile, HCWs from public and private hospitals aired their frustration and anger over what they called the questionable and anomalous disbursement and expenditures of DOH COVID-19 response funds.
The Alliance of Health Workers is furious with Duque and other officials as well as the Duterte government for what they said were their criminal neglect, grave inefficiency, and gross incompetence in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the anomalous spending of P67.323 billion of funds.
These should have been significantly used to ensure efficient healthcare services to the people and for health workers’ safety, protection, and welfare, AHW said.
“This is very frustrating and likewise demoralizing that as the Bayanihan Law 2 expired in June 30, 2021, we remain greatly deprived of our just and timely COVID-19 benefits like the meal, transportation and accommodation allowance, Special Risk Allowance and Active Hazard Duty Pay among others,” AHW said.
It emphasized that health workers were tired, becoming depleted since they themselves were becoming patients of their respective hospitals.
They issued a list of HCWs infected with COVID-19 since August 1, 2021:
Philippine General Hospital – 54 health workers are positive with COVID-19 and 2 have died;
Lung Center of the Philippines – 30 currently positive;
Philippine Heart Center –22:
National Children’s Hospital – 21;
Rizal Medical Center – 16 health workers infected, 2 are currently admitted; and
Amang Rodriguez Memorial Medical Center – 16.
Officials said COVID wards in public hospitals like PGH have a ratio of 1 nurse to 10-12 patients with moderate to severe cases. These patients are on hi-flow oxygen cannula and intubated.
In ICU COVID-19 wards, the regular nurse to patient ratio is 1:1 but with the surge of COVID-19 delta variant, this became 1 nurse to 3 patients.
“We are already drained and overworked. Many from our ranks filed for early retirement and many resigned for fear of being infected with the contagious virus while others went abroad. This has caused severe understaffing in public hospitals that leads us to go on duty for 12 to 24 hours,” said Cristy Donguines, President of the Jose Reyes Memorial Medical Center Employees Union-AHW.
“With exasperation caused by so much difficulty in our workplaces, many from our ranks are now entertaining to go on mass resignation,” she added.
At the same time, Jao Clunia, president of St. Luke’s Medical Center Employees Association, said Duque’s claims were incorrect because no health worker in any private hospital had received these benefits despite being included in the supposed beneficiaries as mandated by law.
Clunia said unions of private hospital employees had several meetings with assistant secretaries from the DOH and even representatives from the Department of Labor and Employment, but to no avail.
Clunia said their group, composed of medical frontliners from 10 private hospitals, had aligned with public health workers in their planned labor strike and all hospitals in the National Capital Region might be affected.
Their primary call during the strike was for Duque to step down.
In the House, the Makabayan Bloc filed a resolution seeking a congressional inquiry into the alleged “grave inefficiency” and “criminal negligence” of the DOH in managing the funds amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In House Resolution 2129, the group, headed by Deputy Minority Leader Isagani Zarate, nominee of Bayan Muna, urged the House committees on Good Government and Public Accountability as well as of Public Accounts to look into the matter.
“Amid this COVID-19 pandemic, the government, especially the DOH, are expected to efficiently allocate and use the limited resources in the pursuit of ending the health crisis,” the Makabayan lawmakers said.
This developed as Deputy speaker and Cagayan de Oro City Rep. Rufus Rodriguez urged Department of Health Secretary Duque to attend the House briefing on the use of his agency’s P67-billion COVID-19 pandemic response funds.
“That will be Secretary Duque’s opportunity to explain the alleged deficiencies in the management of the funds as reported by the Commission on Audit. Anyway, he has vowed to account for all of the money and has declared that none of it has been lost to corruption,” Rodriguez said.
He said as far as Cagayan de Oro City was concerned, “we are thankful and happy with Secretary Duque’s and Secretary Carlito Galvez’s responses to our requests for assistance in fighting the pandemic, especially the recent surge in Covid-19 and Delta variant cases.”
He said the pandemic response task force had delivered additional vaccines and hospital ventilators to Cagayan de Oro.
Rodriguez added that he wanted Duque to particularly address repeated complaints on the payment of benefits Congress had granted nurses and other health workers under the Bayanihan 1 and 2 laws.
He noted that the Department of Budget and Management recently announced it had released P9 billion for the special risk allowance and hazard pay of government and private health care personnel.
“Where is the money now? Have the funds reached hospitals? Why are our nurses complaining that they have not received their special risk allowance and hazard pay?” he asked.
For his part, Rep. Jose Singson Jr. of Probinsyano Ako and chair of the House Committee on Public Accounts said the congressional probe into the DOH’s alleged mismanagement of over P67-billion in COVID-19 must include a close scrutiny of the activities of state-run Philippine International Trading Corporation which had been accused of hoarding over P11-billion in government.
Apart from the resolution filed by the Makabayan Bloc, the Commission on Audit is expected to brief legislators Tuesday on the recently-released 2020 annual audit reports (AAR) for DOH.
Singson said he expected COA officials to also discuss the 2020 AAR of PITC which has failed to deliver the procurement requests made by the DOH-Research Center for Tropical Medicine (RITM) that has advanced nearly P1 billion.
He lamented the 2020 AAR released by COA showed that PITC failed to construct in 2017 the proposed hospital for emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases although it has received from the DOH-Research Institute for Tropical Medicine a total P126-million for the project.
The P126-million is part of the P11 billion that DOH and other government agencies transferred to the PITC for various procurement activities.
This was the year former Laguna board member Dave Almarinez was appointed by President Duterte to head the government-owned trading firm, said Singson.
The PITC said it was ready to open bids for projects worth P3.228 billion this year, thus, saw no obligation to return the money to the concerned national government agencies.
The DOH-RITM has also advanced to the PITC over P826.71 million for the design and construction of the proposed National Reference Laboratory Building that was expected to provide guidance and support to clinical laboratories for microbiological analysis and in the surveillance of infectious diseases.