Health getting mere 1% of 2021 national budget for infrastructure – Recto
MANILA, Philippines — Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto on Wednesday scored the “biggest factory defect” in the proposed P4.5-trillion 2021 national budget, citing how health infrastructure would be getting only a “microscopic” 1 percent share of total spending for government infrastructure amid the prevailing coronavirus pandemic.
“In the midst of the pandemic, when the deficiencies of hospitals and the health system have been exposed, how can this be overlooked by all the President’s men?” he said, referring to the meager budget allotment.
He expressed dismay that in the proposed P1.1-trillion spending for capital outlay next year, only P11.4 billion is allotted for health infrastructure in the 2021 general appropriations bill.
Recto lamented an admission by Sen. Sonny Angara, chair of the Senate finance committee, that the country’s spending for new health facilities was flat, while other countries were doubling amounts in such investments in 2021.
“How many ICU (intensive care unit) beds are we adding [in 2021]? How many additional ventilators? It seems there’s none,” Recto said.
Trimming DOTr ‘fat’
“This is counterintuitive. Bad science meets bad politics. Why put a crisis to waste?” he added.
On Tuesday, the Senate trimmed P35 billion in “fat” from the proposed 2021 budget of the Department of Transportation (DOTr), intending to divert the money to pandemic and calamity response.
But even with the cut, the P109.88-billion outlay for the DOTr headed by Secretary Arthur Tugade was still at a “record high,” said Sen. Grace Poe, the chair of the Senate committee on public services and the budget sponsor. In 2020, the department received a P100.6-billion budget.
“We are in a pandemic and there are important items that the government must spend on,” Poe said.
‘Scaled-down contact tracing’
Recto also pointed out that the proposed 2021 budget did not include funds for a sustained contact tracing for COVID-19.
“Are we abandoning our duty to do contact tracing? Are we changing strategy?” he asked.
In response, Angara said the national government was pursuing its duty of contact tracing, but it was only “scaling down” the program, “given that there is no continuity for the 50,000 trained contact tracers.”
He conceded that the Department of the Interior and Local Government should estimate how many local governments can absorb the contact tracers “to ensure continuity of the program.”
Recto said the local governments could not be expected to continue the contact-tracing program as their revenues “would be less due to the effects of the pandemic.”
The Senate approved a P109.88-billion outlay for the DOTr but deferred action on the P91-million budget of the controversy-plagued Land Transportation Office (LTO), one of the department’s agencies.
The slice of the original P145.36-billion DOTr budget proposed by the executive was bigger than the P20-billion cut in the version of the House of Representatives, Poe said. “We trimmed the fat and examined the DOTr’s ability to use it.”
Unspent budget funds
Recto said the House of Representatives and the Senate made the right call in cutting the DOTr’s outlay. He earlier noted the department’s poor absorptive capacity, or its ability to spend its budgetary allocations within a given year.
In 2019, he said, the DOTr disbursed only P10.5 billion of its P54-billion outlay. In 2018, it disbursed only P26 billion out of its P57-billion share of the national budget.
“In the last five years, we have appropriated more than P330 billion [for DOTr], yet we have only disbursed more or less P70 to P75 billion,” Recto said.
“That cost us P250 billion in appropriations which could have been spent for other things,” he said.
It was not immediately clear which items were affected by the P35-billion cut, but Poe’s camp said the amount would be set aside to augment funding for the government’s COVID-19 response and disaster relief.
“We achieved the cut while adding a P5-billion subsidy for those in the public utility vehicle sector,” Poe said.
“We need to scrutinize the budget and be more unforgiving when it comes to wastage. People are suffering and jeepney drivers have been without income for too long,” she said.
The Senate opted to defer approval of the LTO budget pending its explanation on a number of issues raised by the senators, such as the “much-delayed delivery of license plates,” according to Poe.
Sen. Richard Gordon castigated the LTO for the delayed implementation of a law compelling motorcycles to use bigger and more readable license plates to prevent crimes by “tandem riders.”
Under the DOTr budget, the senators approved the following outlays: the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) with P203 million; the Maritime Industry Authority, P765 million; Office of Transportation Cooperatives, P36 million; Office for Transportation Security, P338 million; and the Philippine Coast Guard, P13 billion.
Since aviation “took the hardest hit” during the pandemic, the Senate added P1.533 billion for the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines, which originally did not get any funding.
Another P60.8 million was added to the CAB outlay.
The Senate also earmarked a P1.018-billion budget for the Light Rail Transit and another P1.23 billion for the Philippine National Railway.
Recto said the COVID-19 crisis had put the country’s health system to a “stress test,” whose results “are not good” and should have prompted the government to ramp up health spending.
“[This is] not just to confront an ongoing health crisis but also to lay the ground for a health system that is in a better position to respond to future pandemics and the medical needs of a growing population,” he said.
Recto said “conventional wisdom” has led senators to expect a “pandemic bump” in the health budget for new equipment and buildings.
“But no such thing happened. There was no booster shot,” he said.
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