Test samples for Red Cross shifted to big Metro Manila labs while PhilHealth debt unresolved

COVID-19 testing samples that were supposed to be processed by Philippine Red Cross (PRC) laboratories would instead be sent to other big laboratories in Metro Manila and nearby provinces while PRC and PhilHealth resolve their issue on debt.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said this was a temporary measure given the need to continue processing test results despite PRC's decision to stop the free coronavirus testing funded by the Philippine Heath Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth).

Those entitled to the PhilHealth-funded tests were OFWs, individuals arriving in airports and seaports, and mostly public healthcare workers.

However, PRC unilaterally ended this arrangement because of PhilHealth's non-payment of  its P930-million ($19.14-million) debt.

"We rerouted specimens for the Philippine Red Cross to the big labs around Metro Manila and nearby Metro Manila like Jose B Lingad, Lung Center of th Philippines, and other big labs," said Vergeire on Saturday, October 17, during a Laging Handa virtual press briefing.

"This is a temporary measure so we will be able to complete and continuously receive specimens so operations aren't hampered," she added.

Another step the Philippine government would take is to remove the requirement of RT-PCR (reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction) tests for Filipinos returning from countries with a "low prevalence" of COVID-19.

These tests were conducted by PRC.

"If testing will not be accessible, we will just be able to quarantine them for 14 days and after 14 days, they will be able to return to their provinces," said Vergeire, who called the scheme a "more rationale testing methodology."

PhilHealth wants to pay

In the meantime, she gave assurances that PhilHealth officials were determined to settle the debt with PRC so that its "free" tests for overseas Filipino workers, medical and non-medical frontliners, can resume.

PhilHealth President and CEO Dante Gierran had met with PRC officials to talk about paying the debt.

"We are just fixing some data so we can have a final resolution to this issue. PRC is helping us fix this. We still need some data so we can comply and we can provide them with the necessary payment," said Vergeire.

These tests are supposed to be covered by PhilHealth so that these workers will not shell out any cash for them.

PRC's decision to stop its free tests is a big blow to the government's testing strategy and implementation of the Universal Health Care Act which mandates that PhilHealth cover the COVID-19 testing and treatment of all Filipinos.

The PRC has conducted over 1 million coronavirus swab tests, representing 26% of all coronavirus swab tests in the Philippines. It also operates 21 of the 147 licensed testing hubs in the country. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.