Budget Watch

Lawmakers ask: Why wait-list P45 billion in COVID-19 booster shots?

Aika Rey
Lawmakers ask: Why wait-list P45 billion in COVID-19 booster shots?

BOOSTER SHOTS? This file photo shows the OVP Vaccination Express for Pasig indigents.

OVP

The budget department says it defers to the 'collective wisdom' of the House. But can Congress really touch other programs to make way for COVID-19 vaccine booster shots?

Lawmakers on Thursday, August 26, asked the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) to explain why it wait-listed P45 billion earmarked for COVID-19 booster shots, when even fully vaccinated Filipinos are still susceptible to coronavirus infection.

Lawmakers raised the question on Thursday, at the start of the House committee on appropriations’ budget deliberations attended by Philippine economic managers.

Under the proposed P5.024-trillion budget for 2022, P45.47 billion is lodged under unprogrammed appropriations for COVID-19 vaccine booster shots.

Unprogrammed appropriations provide standby authority, but this does not necessarily mean that available funds can be used right away. It is only tapped when revenues exceed targets or if there are grants.

During the House hearing, Marikina 2nd District Representative Stella Quimbo asked the DBM to explain why the proposed budget for COVID-19 vaccine booster shots was placed under unprogrammed appropriations if there is a chance for the government to have “less than expected revenue collections.”

“We are saying that for us to recover economically, we need vaccines. But why did we put COVID-19 vaccines under the unprogrammed fund? Can you explain this kind of planning decision?” asked Quimbo.

DBM Officer-in-Charge Tina Canda answered, “In the absence of any definitive ruling from the IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force) and the DOH (Department of Health) that it is a requirement at this point, we did not place it under a line item because it is not sure and there are no assurances that we need it.”

Later during the hearing, House Deputy Minority Leader Janette Garin pointed out that vaccinated Filipinos, like herself, can still get COVID-19.

“Believe me, napakahirap po (it is very difficult),” Garin said. “I appeal to our economic managers that the budget for vaccines be instead put in a line item budget.”

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“It’s not true that we don’t need a third dose, but a booster dose might be needed if the impact of the [two] doses will be short-term or if ever we will have additional variants after Delta, Delta Plus, and Lambda,” Garin added.

In response, Canda said that she deferred to the “collective wisdom” of the chamber.

“I defer to the collective wisdom, especially because Dr. Garin is an expert in the field of health…to change the amounts or [the] transfer of the unprogrammed fund to the programmed,” said the DBM official.

A similar situation happened during the deliberations for the 2021 National Expenditure Program. Congress, supposedly, has the power of the purse but it was not able to do much with the vaccine budget in 2021.

The P70-billion budget for COVID-19 vaccines in 2021, despite calls to place it together with the P2.5-billion fund in the DOH budget, was still placed under unprogrammed appropriations.

This is in stark contrast to the multibillion-peso allocation for infrastructure or the controversial anti-insurgency funds that are part of the programmed budget in 2021.

Touching the budget of President Rodrigo Duterte’s priority programs to make way for vaccines is a “big no-no,” Senate President Vicente Sotto III had said in 2020. Congress’ move would have been vetoed anyway, he said.

For 2022, the executive earmarked P240 billion – or a mere 4% of the proposed budget – for pandemic response. The 2022 budget is the last budget to be passed by the Duterte administration. – Rappler.com

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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.