House stimulus package eyes P20-B fund to test Filipino workers

The proposed P1.3-trillion economic stimulus package in the House would allot P20 billion for the massive coronavirus testing of millions of Filipino workers in 2020 and 2021. 

Economist turned Marikina City 2nd District Representative Stella Quimbo, co-author of House Bill (HB) No. 6815 or the Philippine Economic Stimulus Act (PESA), said on Tuesday, May 26, that mass testing is key in “effectively” reopening the economy after the pandemic. 

“Alam naman po natin ang dahilan po kung bakit po tayo naglagay ng funding para sa mass testing ay para po manumbalik ang kumpiyansa ng ating mga manggagawa, manumbalik ang kumpiyansa ng ating mga consumers (We know that the reason why we put funding for mass testing is so consumer confidence would return)… This is the only way that we can effectively reopen the economy,” Quimbo said.

She was sponsoring HB 6815 during the plenary session, where Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman inquired about the breakdown for the proposed P20 billion mass testing fund for 2020 to 2021, with each year getting a P10 billion allotment. 

Quimbo said they derived the amount from their “rough” estimate of subjecting to two rapid tests– the second one being a confirmatory test – some 10 million workers based in metropolitan areas across the country. That would be equal to P9 billion if each rapid test is pegged at P450.  Another P1 billion would be allotted for the training of laboratory technicians and the purchase of testing equipment, for a total of P10 billion for mass testing per year. 

Quimbo said the goal is to provide funding for the rapid tests of asymptomatic workers or those who do not exhibit symptoms of COVID-19. Right now, asymptomatic Filipinos are not among those prioritized for testing due to the government’s limited resources. 

“The idea here is that we would want the testing to go beyond the symptomatics. That’s the main idea…. It’s really to cover testing for the asymptomatics, which we feel would be mostly for workers,” Quimbo said. 

Under PESA, local government units would be tasked to identify and prioritize areas and business activities that are "critically impacted and severely affected by the COVID-19 [crisis] and with high probability of COVID-19 transmission."

Still, the PESA bill author said the Department of Health (DOH) would still be the one to issue the testing guidelines to be followed once HB 6815 becomes a law. 

The Marikina congresswoman has long been pushing for testing a greater part of the population for possible COVID-19 infection, countering the DOH's previous claim that testing of asymptomatic residents is “not cost-effective” for now. 

"It's never about the budget. A cost-benefit analysis informs a budget decision. But the budget itself is never a parameter in a cost-benefit analysis. In other words, if there is an activity, like mass testing, which is not costly but the benefits are huge, then you find the budget for that," Quimbo said in a May 20 House hearing. (READ: ECQ alone won't curb coronavirus, PH needs mass testing – UP expert)

To date, the Philippines has tallied a total of 14,669 confirmed cases , with 886 deaths and 3,412 recoveries. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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