Senators question 2021 budget’s priorities amid coronavirus crisis

The Health department’s budget for 2021 is 14% lower than this year, despite the ongoing pandemic. — PHILIPPINE STAR/MICHAEL VARCAS

SENATORS on Wednesday questioned the economic team’s priorities under the proposed P4.5-trillion national budget for 2021 as allocations for health and social safety nets were cut and funds for infrastructure projects increased despite the ongoing pandemic.

Senator Franklin M. Drilon asked economic managers why the Department of Health (DoH) budget was slashed by 14% to P131 billion in 2021, when the agency’s role in restoring confidence in the public health system is crucial for economic recovery.

“It’s P153 billion for this year as adjusted with Bayanihan I and II and yet for next year, we are only allocating P131 billion. Isn’t there something wrong with this? When in fact we should recognize that economic recovery depends upon protecting public health because that is where the confidence of the consumer has weakened,” he said during the Development Budget Coordination Committee (DBCC) briefing at the Senate on Wednesday.

Even if there are questions over the DoH’s handling of the health crisis, Mr. Drilon said it is still important for the government to give a bigger budget to improve testing, contact tracing and treatment of those infected by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Budget Secretary Wendel E. Avisado said the DoH’s budget was higher this year because they made substantial investments such as buying testing machines and other equipment to deal with the health crisis.

“Next year, what will be covered mostly are the consumables, the test kits and therefore, that is where we wanted to ensure that there will be more than enough consumables to be able to correspond the capital investments that we had this year, and other accompanying items,” Mr. Avisado said.

Senator Cynthia A. Villar also pointed out only 30 out of 70 DoH-operated hospitals have set up COVID-19 testing facilities despite the increased budget.

“Apart from testing, there is also the question of contact tracing and our ability to treat and therefore this is an issue that I take with you because the budget didn’t sufficiently address the protection of public health which for this budget is key for economic recovery,” Mr. Drilon added.

Senator Risa N. Hontiveros-Baraquel also raised concerns the estimated P20 billion to be set aside for the free vaccination program against COVID-19 may not be enough.

Ms. Hontiveros estimated around P189 billion would be needed to subsidize the vaccines for 18 million poor families, assuming there are five members in a family and three doses worth P700 each would be needed.

Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III said the budget for the vaccination program was only based on estimates given by the Health department. In July, he said P20 billion will be able to provide free vaccines worth P1,000 each for 20 million Filipinos.

Pati ang Secretary ng Health ina-underestimate ‘yung kailangan ng department nila para magsagawa ng isang seryosong (Even the Health Secretary is underestimating the budget they need to implement this) vaccination program. P20 billion is only one-ninth of the P189 billion that we initially computed on this end… At pag kaharap ang isang napakatinding virus tulad nito (and if we are facing a serious virus like this), ideally, it’s universal vaccination so malayong malayo pa tayo,” Ms. Hontiveros said.

There is P2.5 billion allocated for the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines under next year’s budget and another P10 billion in standby funds under the proposed Bayanihan to Recover as One Act (Bayanihan II).

Mr. Dominguez said the program will be funded through the state-run banks, which is “outside of the budget” for next year but will be paid in future spending plans of the government.

Mr. Drilon also expressed concern over the lack of funding for a Social Amelioration Program (SAP) next year, given that the poverty incidence in the country is expected to worsen because of the pandemic.

Mr. Avisado said while the cash aid program has already been discontinued once lockdown was eased, the government still has other job-generating programs and social safety net programs.

The government rolled out a P200-billion emergency cash aid program to 18 million poor families in April during the lockdown.

Under the 2021 budget, P149 billion was allotted for social protection programs, 16% lower than the P177.2 billion for this year.

Meanwhile, Senator Panfilo M. Lacson asked the economic team to explain why the country’s two major infrastructure agencies still received substantial budget allocations despite their history of underspending.

His presentation showed the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) had the biggest unused budget in 2019 worth P83.7 billion, while the Department of Transportation (DoTr) ranked fourth with P21.65 billion.

The DPWH received the second-largest budget allocation for next year worth P667.3 billion, up 52% from the P438.9 billion it has this year. The Transportation department ranked seventh with a P143.6 billion budget, up 71% from the P84 billion in 2020.

“With the performances of the two BBB (Build, Build, Build) frontline departments, will the two agencies be able to deliver in 2021? Although construction works [for this year only] resumed in May, ‘yung efficiency remains low due to the protocols and restrictions being implemented,” Mr. Lacson said.

Mr. Avisado said the DPWH and DoTr committed to ramping up the implementation of all infrastructure projects.

“Hopefully they do their best to comply. In terms of policy, I think we all agree that we cannot afford delays especially at this time given that we have already suffered enough under the current conditions,” he said.

The budget for infrastructure projects was increased to P1.107 trillion next year from the reduced P785.5-billion budget this year as the implementation of the “Build, Buid, Build” program was seen to help with economic recovery.

“In your planning and projections, have you considered the efficiency of the construction in relation to the infrastructure strategy under the present pandemic? Kasi if things remain constant in 2021, how do we foresee the efficacy of the rebound strategy,” Mr. Lacson said. — Beatrice M. Laforga

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