Health workers' allowance, free rides end with Bayanihan 2 expiry

Some government programs funded under the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act (Bayanihan 2) are ending on Wednesday, June 30, as funds under the law expire.

The P5,000 monthly special risk allowance for health workers and the free rides for commuters will have to be suspended, as President Rodrigo Duterte did not call for a special session to extend the validity of about P9 billion in unspent funds.

Funds that will not be obligated or committed for payment before Wednesday ends will revert to the National Treasury.

It is uncertain whether the Department of Health will find other sources for the health workers' allowance. But Health Secretary Francisco Duque III supports the proposed Bayanihan to Arise As One Act (Bayanihan 3), asking Congress for at least P60 billion in additional funding for the allowances and hiring of medical personnel, among others.

Bayanihan 2's expiry also means that the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) has to suspend its public utility vehicle (PUV) service contracting program, which has been giving free rides.

Frontliners and commuters benefiting from the program will have to pay for their fares starting Thursday, July 1. The situation could also lead to a relapse into the PUV boundary system, which the program sought to stop.

The LTFRB has said that it will be using P3 billion allotted under the 2021 national budget for the PUV service contracting program. But it appears that the Department of Budget and Management has yet to issue a special release allotment order – the authorization that signals fund release – for the program as of Wednesday.

Rappler reached out to Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado for comment on budget releases, but he has yet to respond as of posting.

So far, the LTFRB has spent only about P1.5 billion of its P5.58-billion budget for the last nine months that the program was implemented.

Groups have called on the Duterte administration to extend the Bayanihan 2 law, but their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. There were also renewed calls to pass Bayanihan 3, but funding sources remain elusive.

To be continued

Despite the expiry of Bayanihan 2, some programs it had funded will continue, using agency budgets under the national budget or 2021 General Appropriations Act (GAA).

The Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) told Rappler that its contact tracing effort will not be suspended come Thursday. As of May 15, the interior department still has about P1 billion to obligate.

"DILG still has available funds for the contact tracing efforts and in fact requested for the extension of their services, and the funds for said purpose," said Interior Undersecretary Bernardo Florece.

The DILG also has a P500-million budget for training and hiring contact tracers under the 2021 GAA. Florece said this budget would last for only one and a half months for 15,000 contact tracers, starting Thursday.

Meanwhile, the cash-for-work initiative of the Department of Labor and Employment will continue under its Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers (TUPAD) program.

TUPAD has some P19.04 billion in appropriations for 2021.

Foregone funds?

Leaving Bayanihan 2 to expire has reopened old wounds, as groups pointed out that the 2021 GAA is not a pandemic budget. (READ: In Duterte's 2021 budget, Filipinos are on their own)

The amounts for budget items for the health, social welfare, and labor departments were thought to be "small" for a nation that hasn't flattened the curve. When the budget was being debated in 2020, economic managers had said that there were Bayanihan 2 funds still available at departments' disposal.

Now, the unspent P9 billion under Bayanihan 2 covers service contracting, digital education efforts, and the hiring of health personnel. Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire on Tuesday, June 29, said that some P600 million in allotment has yet to be spent for the hiring of health personnel.

In a statement, the Nagkaisa Labor Coalition denounced the government's seeming lack of urgency.

"The Duterte administration's timid response regarding the impending expiration of the Bayanihan 2 package and the disinterest in comprehensive intervention in the economy through Bayanihan 3 is an irresponsible disservice to Filipinos," Nagkaisa said.

"The lack of urgency by our leaders threatens the immediate, medium-term, and long-term recovery efforts urgently needed by the millions that continue to be affected by COVID-19."

Doctor Katerina Abiertas of the Healthcare Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19 said of the would-be foregone funds, "If there is enough money to be spent in addressing COVID-19, especially in the communities, why will we stop its continued use to support pandemic response?"

On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the Bayanihan 2 law only provides the authority to spend, but it would be deemed useless if the funds aren't there.

"We can extend and extend but if we do not have the funds to back up the budget, nothing will happen. The budget is simply an authority to spend," Drilon said.

"Why is the President reluctant to call for a special session? Because there are no funds to back up the budget."

In a June 17 Senate hearing, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III admitted how difficult it was to look for funding sources to fuel the proposed Bayanihan 3, as revenue collections are down amid the recession. – with reports from Dwight de Leon and Sofia Tomacruz/Rappler.com

Aika Rey

Aika Rey is a business reporter for Rappler. She covered the Senate of the Philippines before fully diving into numbers and companies. Got tips? Find her on Twitter at @reyaika or shoot her an email at aika.rey@rappler.com.

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