May 29, 2024 People's Journal 133 views

LAWMAKERS have been assured by officials from the Department of Health (DOH) that there are ample funds to prepare for the emerging COVID-19 variants, including the procurement of updated vaccine doses to protect vulnerable Filipinos.

The assurance was made during Wednesday’s oversight hearing of the House Committee on Appropriations, where vice chair Marikina 2nd District Rep. Stella Quimbo expressed shock over a newspaper headline claiming that the government has no budget set aside to procure updated COVID-19 vaccines.

The headline suggested a lack of preparation to protect Filipinos from the new “FLIRT” variants driving a wave of infections worldwide.

During the hearing, Quimbo questioned the DOH’s budget management, noting the department’s significant yet underutilized funds.

“Napakarami niyo bang pera? It’s very clear na napakabagal po ng paggastos ng DOH, hindi lang sa taon na ito kundi sa previous years,” Quimbo said, after hearing the presentation of DOH Undersecretary Achilles Gerard Bravo on the agency’s budget utilization report.

“Parang nakakagulat dahil sa dami ng pera natin, at kayo po I believe Usec. Bravo ay nanggaling sa DBM, klaro naman po na maraming pwedeng pagkunan ng pondo. Tama po?” Quimbo said.

Bravo confirmed the availability of funds. “Madam chair, that’s correct,” he said in response to Quimbo’s question.

Quimbo noted various funding sources such as the quick response fund and the communicable disease program, which remain largely untapped.

“So mayroon tayong halimbawa may quick response fund na nakikita natin dito nakasulat P0.97B, pwedeng pagkunan ‘yun. At the same time napakarami niyo, may communicable disease program na obviously hindi niyo pa nagagamit, halos hindi nagagamit pa, at kahit sabihin natin na walang line-item para sa specific variant na ‘yun dahil hindi pa natin alam na may ganoong variant ng panahon na sinusulat natin ang 2024 GAA (General Appropriations Act), pwede naman ‘yan. Tama po?” she added.

Bravo reassured the committee of the DOH’s readiness to adjust its budget.

“Madam chair, you are correct. So what we will do is that we have so many funds at the DOH, even from the CONAP (Continuing Appropriations) in 2023 and the current. If there’s a need to provide something for the emerging COVID variant, we can always make some modifications within our budget,” he stated.

Regarding the reallocation of unused funds, Bravo explained, “What we are doing right now is we are collating all the resources of DOH kung ilan ang savings at CONAP ng other programs and then we will decide ano yung i-prioritize kasi ‘yung slow-moving appropriations, we are going to modify them and transfer them to fast-moving appropriations.”

House Deputy Majority Leader and Iloilo 1st District Rep. Janette Garin addressed the emerging “FLIRT” variant of COVID-19, urging preparedness over panic.

She highlighted the challenges of implementing border control and emphasized the importance of vaccination and access to pneumonia and flu vaccines.

“Bottomline is, tama si Cong. Stella, the preparation should go back to either vaccination if an updated version is available, but more importantly is pneumonia, flu vaccines and the medicines for whoever will need it,” Garin said.

Garin, a physician and who once served as Health Secretary, called for the DOH to ensure free hospitalization and medication for health care workers and immunocompromised individuals.

Bravo assured that the department is utilizing its savings to meet these needs. “Madam chair, right now we are collating the savings of the DOH which meron naman, we can use that,” he responded.

DOH Assistant Secretary Albert Francis Domingo, meanwhile, denied the headline suggesting a lack of budget for new COVID-19 vaccines.

“Meron pong pera at mali ang headline na walang pera para sa bakuna dahil to begin with hindi pa naman natin alam kung ano ang mga Kp2, Kp3 variants,” Domingo pointed out.

“Naka-monitor din po tayo sa ating bed occupancy, mild po siya pero tama po si Dr. Garin na ang mga doktor hindi tayo nag-aantay na may pumutok na emergency, naka-ready tayo dapat,” he added.