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An extra cross to bear

"The impact of the Philippine Red Cross’ decision to stop COVID-19 testing is not trivial."

There’s been a lot of back-and-forth over the Philippine Red Cross (PRC) decision to stop COVID-19 testing until the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) pays almost P1 billion that it owes for tests already conducted.

The impact of that decision is not trivial. The Department of Health says the suspension of COVID-19 testing will hurt its ability to get an accurate measure of the spread of the coronavirus. This is hardly surprising, given that Red Cross laboratories account for 25 percent of the country’s capacity for reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) testing for COVID-19.

The suspension of its COVID-19 testing for PhilHealth accounts led airport authorities to limit the number of inbound passengers on international flights allowed at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport to 2,500 daily, down from 3,000, because of the loss of testing capacity.

We can understand the reluctance of the new PhilHealth chief, Dante Gierran, to disburse large amounts of cash after his predecessor and other top executives of the state insurer resigned under a cloud of scandal due to allegations of widespread corruption. The new chief apparently had asked the agency’s lawyers and the Department of Justice to review the agreement between PRC and PhilHealth before making payment. From published reports so far, it seems PhilHealth lawyers found the deal to be irregular but the Department of Justice cleared the memorandum of agreement.

Regardless of these disagreements, several points are clear:

First, there is no question that PhilHealth owes PRC some P930 million. Nobody, not even the government, disputes this.

Second, testing entails costs. Like all other accredited laboratories, the PRC buys test kits from abroad, and it would be unreasonable to expect it to absorb these costs. Against this backdrop, the PRC’s suspension of testing can hardly be described—as some politicians would have it—as blackmail.

The legal issue must eventually be settled, of course, if the Department of Justice opinion is set aside. Still, this does not erase the government’s debt for goods and services already rendered. The failure to settle these arrears, not obstinacy on the part of PRC, is responsible for the disruption in COVID-19 testing—something we can ill afford at this crucial time.

Politicians who are muddying the issue should answer one basic question: Are there any testing facilities out there that can perform an RT-PCR test for COVID-19 for less than the P3,500 that the PRC charges PhilHealth? If the answer is no, silence may indeed be golden.

Topics: Editorial , Philippine Red Cross , COVID-19 , Philippine Health Insurance Corp. , PhilHealth
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