SENATE minority leader Franklin Drilon yesterday grilled budget leaders why the Department of Health (DOH), which is in the forefront of the government’s struggle against the coronavirus disease (COVID-2019), has been appropriated a lower budget for next year amid the urgency of improving the healthcare system of the country.
During the Development Budget Coordinating Committee briefing on the proposed P4.5 trillion 2021 national budget held by the Senate committee on finance, Drilon said he was puzzled why only P131.71 billion was allocated by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) for the DOH’s 2021 year-long expenditure program, when Congress has already adjusted the agency’s budget for this year to P153 billion from the original P104.493 billion.
The DOH budget was given a higher budget allocation for the current year under the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, which Congress passed in a special session in March to give Malacañang enough financial elbow room to fund measures aimed at controlling the spread and addressing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stressing that the health department was on top of the government’s health response to the crisis, Drilon said: “I question the reduction of the DOH budget from the present P153.1 billion versus P131 billion for 2021. I find something wrong with this because we should recognize that our economic recovery depends on our ability to protect public health.”
“We need to improve our testing, contract tracing and our ability to treat. How can we achieve this if we reduced the budget of the DOH? Of course, there are issues on the capabilities of the secretary of health today but that is beside the point. As a policy, we should increase the allocation for the health sector,” he said.
He added: “The 2021 budget does not adequately address the protection of public health. We should be able to provide confidence to the public that we are indeed able to address the pandemic. People are afraid to go out today. We can have all kinds of stimulus but as long as there is no confidence on the part of the public, we will find difficulty recovering.” Budget Secretary Wendell Avisado said that the DOH’s budget of P131.71 was already 26 percent higher than the original budget of P104.493 billion this year. Avisado said the DOH budget for next year will cover mostly consumables like COVID-19 test kits “and we wanted to ensure that there will be more than enough consumables to respond to the capital investments that we have this year as well as the purchase of PPEs.”
Drilon said he was dissatisfied with Avisado’s response and would continue to raise the lower budgetary allocation when the DOH’s budget is raised in the Senate plenary. Drilon also hit the lack of additional cash subsidies in the 2021 national budget to help the poor (4Ps) and the vulnerable families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. He noted that direct cash subsidies, such as the Special Amelioration Program or SAP, were not included in next year’s budget. Avisado said there were some modifications done in the budget of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, which handles the 4Ps program and the distribution of the SAP.
“There were some modifications in the budget of the DSWD, so that savings from 4Ps was utilized for SAP,” Avisado said. Drilon replied: “Savings from 4Ps was utilized for SAP? I am not satisfied with the answer. These are budgetary allocations to address poverty and therefore, there was no sense in your removing from one item designed for poverty alleviation and transfer it to another program also designed for poverty alleviation, I don’t see the logic for that.”
Avisado reasoned out that “it’s still within the same item, your honor, and they also had the same beneficiaries.”
ENDING ARMED CONFLICTS
At the same time, Drilon questioned the allocation of P16.4 billion for the Barangay Development Program of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), which was created under the Office of the President supposedly to fight insurgency. Drilon noted that the special funds were way higher than the proposed appropriations for the labor, tourism, and trade department of the executive.
The NTF-ELCAC was created to synchronize the utilization of the government’s instrumentalities of power with the capabilities of private sector stakeholders to end the more than 50-year communism in the country. The task force is under the management of the National Security Adviser’s office.
Drilon pointed out that the P16.4 billion lodged under the task force, which is not even a line agency, is bigger than the P15.9 billion budget of the Department of Labor and Employment, the P7.4 billion for the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, the P3.5 billion for the Department of Tourism, and the P5.5 billion of the Department of Trade and Industry.
“Are we saying that communist insurgency will be a bigger threat than our unemployment? Is the communist insurgency a bigger threat than our high unemployment, the loss of jobs of our OFWs, the shutdown of our entire tourism industry and the closure of tens of thousands of small businesses?” Drilon said.
Avisado said the P16.4 billion for the NTF ELCAC will not go directly to the task force but rather will be distributed to barangays, which have supposedly already identified various strategies needed to end communism in their respective areas.
“The budget given to this program, your honor, does not go to NTF ELCAC. The projects are identified by the barangay themselves. It is just the NTF-ELCAC, being the national secretariat, that is the repository of all these requested projects from the barangays,” Avisado said.
Drilon expressed concern that barangay executives might abuse their fiscal freedom and use the funds for election purposes, noting that next will be a run-up to the 2022 presidential and local elections.
“Let’s be candid. Next year is an election year and here is a secretariat who will be playing God to the requests of the barangays. When you have a system like this, it can be clearly used for political purposes especially that 2021 is an election year,” Drilon said, adding: “I call a spade a spade. I am being candid with you. I am not new in this bureaucracy. When you have an office, not a regular line agency but just somebody or a task force, who will be approving and disapproving the requests of barangays. You can imagine the political favors that can be done out of this system.”
Under the provisions of the 2021 national expenditures program, the P16.4 shall be used for the implementation of various support programs of the NTFELCAC for barangays that have been cleared and certified by the NTF-ELCAC. The proposed appropriation law provides that each cleared barangay shall be allocated with an amount not exceeding P20 million to be used for farm-to-market roads, school buildings, water and sanitation systems, health stations, electrification, agricultural, livelihood and technical vocational trainings/projects; and assistance to indigent individual or families in any of the following forms of assistance: medical, burial, transportation, food, cash for work, and educational. Drilon told Avisado that the functions can be very well performed by different line agencies.
“If a barangay would need a farm-to-market road, why can they not go to DPWH? Why do we need to create a new bureaucracy when this can be handled by different line agencies?” he added. Drilon said such a decision to create a new layer of bureaucracy unnecessarily bloats the budget for personnel. He pointed out that the 2021 budget for personnel services (PS) has steadily been increasing in the past years, and now stands at P1.1trillion in 2021.
In a separate statement, Drilon warned that post-enactment identification of projects is unconstitutional pursuant to the Supreme Court rulings on PDAF or priority development assistance fund.
“The DBM must already identify the barangays that stand to benefit and submit the list to Congress prior to the approval of the 2021 General Appropriations Act. We cannot approve this lump sum appropriation as it violates the principle of transparency in the budget. Post-identification of projects is unconstitutional,” he said.