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Drilon flags ‘overpriced’ PhilHealth virus testing

MANILA, Philippines — Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) may have “overpriced” by P8.3 billion the cost of testing people for the new coronavirus, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said on Wednesday.

Drilon raised his concern after Sen. Panfilo Lacson claimed during the online hearing of the Senate committee of the whole the day before that the Department of Health (DOH) bought medical equipment twice as expensive as those purchased by private groups.

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Iloilo Rep. Janette Garin also called on President Duterte late Tuesday to crack down on a couple who, she said, were cornering the importation and distribution of automated coronavirus testing machines, which she alleged they were selling at inflated prices.

‘Criminal act’“I will tell the PhilHealth straight: This is a criminal act,” Drilon said, pointing out that the P16 billion that the state health insurer would spend for its coronavirus testing program should be reduced by half.

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“I am alarmed by a potential overpricing of PhilHealth’s testing packages. This could be a huge blow [to the government],” he said.

Drilon noted that Health Secretary Francisco Duque III told the Senate committee of the whole that PhilHealth had earmarked P8,150 for each person tested in a public or private laboratory for the new coronavirus that causes the severe respiratory disease COVID-19.

The senator said this was excessively pricier than the commercially available test kits from China, which usually cost P1,500 each.

With a potential overhead expenses of P2,000 and income of P500, Drilon said the “reasonable price” of a testing package must be only P4,000.

“Clearly, there is potential overpayment of P4,150 for every test paid by PhilHealth. That is not right and that is unforgivable,” he said.

He noted that the government was aiming to test at least 2 million Filipinos, or about 2 percent of the country’s total population of more than 100 million.

“That price tag of P8,150 is ridiculous. It reeks of corruption or negligence considering that the Philippine Red Cross and [private groups] have proven that they [can] conduct the test at half the price,” he said.

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“Imagine that more than P8 billion will be lost due to overpricing and overpayment while our government economic managers are moving heaven and earth to look for funds for the country to survive this pandemic,” he said.

‘No actual payments yet’

In a brief text message to the Inquirer, PhilHealth President and CEO Ricardo Morales said the “test rates [are] under constant review.”

“No actual payments yet, claims still 120 days after discharge,” Morales said.

Defending the state health insurer’s program, Duque said the cost of the testing package that PhilHealth would shoulder actually ranged from P2,710 to P8,150.

“If testing was not paid for by the DOH and the test kit used was not donated, which means that the laboratory had spent for all of the cost, it would be about P8,150 per test,” Duque said.

PhilHealth will pay only P2,710 if the test is shouldered by the DOH and if the test kit is donated, he said.

“If the testing was not paid for by the DOH but the test kit was donated, [the price is] P5,450 per test. So [it varies]. It changes,” he said.

‘V.E.’

In a privilege speech on Tuesday night, Garin, a former health secretary, asked the President to look into alleged profiteering by the couple, whom she did not identify but described them as “very enterprising” or “V.E.”

“My appeal to our beloved President, please look into this [irregularity] in the importation of Natch CS and please [snap] your finger[s] at this very enterprising couple so they’d wake up,” Garin said.

Natch CS is a fully automated extraction instrument used in testing for the new coronavirus.

Garin alleged that the couple were effectively “hoarding” the machines and barring private laboratories from acquiring them by claiming they are the “exclusive distributors.”

“But unknown to us, it is the [manufacturer’s] policy that [the machine is] not to be sold for profit. It is being made available to facilitate testing,” she said.

Garin said she had learned that companies that were trying to acquire the machine had their orders held and then found that “not only they but also all of the companies selling testing kits will only be given the machine if they also [buy] testing kits.”

“The donors and the entrepreneur of this company were told that several machines were sent to this couple,” Garin said.

“This couple allegedly facilitated the entry of 30 Natch CS automated extractor machines and 40 MA6000 [tissue culture kits] into the Philippines,” she said.

“It turned out that the donors who repeatedly coordinated with various companies were being blocked from purchasing the machines and the reason they were given was that [the couple] were the exclusive distributors,” Garin said.

She said that as a result of the couple’s actions, the procurement of the machines was delayed and it was only after May 11 that the equipment were sent to the companies that had ordered them.

Garin said the two were warned not to hoard equipment a month and a half ago.

“They were [told] to use the equipment for testing. They were warned not to overprice. They were warned not to deprive our country of the much needed PCR (polymerase chain reaction) or swab testing for COVID,” she said and warned the couple and their accomplices “not to try the government.”

Mass testing ‘cheap’

Garin, a physician, also admonished the DOH for not buying PCR testing kits directly from the manufacturers, which she said would have driven down costs dramatically.

“If the government buys from the companies directly, all of it—from the test kits to the reagents to the consumables—will not cost more than P800 to P900. I can prove it,” she said.

She said she was wondering why the DOH was not pushing for mass testing when it could do so at affordable rates.

“What could be the reason? For the past months and weeks, I have been very tired of convincing people that our testing in the Philippines is the most expensive in the world,” she said. “Why are we insisting that it is expensive [when] in fact it is cheap?”

Garin urged Mr. Duterte to “discipline your children.” —WITH A REPORT FROM JOVIC YEE

For more news about the novel coronavirus click here.
What you need to know about Coronavirus.
For more information on COVID-19, call the DOH Hotline: (02) 86517800 local 1149/1150.

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