Time is running out for the national government to spend the P18 billion that Congress has allocated for COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and healthcare workers, lawmakers warned over the weekend and until Monday, June 21.
The unspent fund, which is part of Bayanihan 2 or the Bayanihan to Recover As One Act, has to be spent by June 30 or it will revert to the National Treasury – unless President Rodrigo Duterte calls on Congress to hold special sessions to pass a law extending the fund’s validity.
The deadline for spending the Bayanihan 2 fund has already been extended once from December 19, 2020, to June 30, 2021.
With the second deadline nearing, lawmakers called for another extension. Congress is currently on break until July 26, and only the Senate can hold a special session without the President’s call.
Why this matters
The P18 billion expiring fund is part of the P173.3 billion COVID-19 funds that have already been released but remain unspent by the government as of mid-2021.
“This is a life-or-death decision for many provinces. We can’t afford a month without contact tracing or with reduced health capacity,” Albay 2nd District Representative Joey Salceda said in a statement on Friday, June 18.
Salceda, the chairman of the House ways and means committee, said the unspent funds comprised of P6.6 billion for lab testing and healthcare workers, and around P873 million for contact tracing.
The funds could be crucial for areas hard hit by the virus, as testing and contact tracing are pillars of pandemic response, and healthcare workers are essential in keeping hospitals afloat to handle the continuous flood of infections.
If the funds are unspent, the money goes back to the National Treasury.
The House of Representatives is pushing for a Bayanihan 3 bill for aid for all Filipinos, but critics have used Bayanihan 2 as an example to point out that the government must first dedicate itself to spending all the money it had been given before pursuing another aid program.
In his statement on Monday, June 21, Senator Francis Pangilinan called on the government to quickly spend and obligate the expiring cash.
“[W]ith this big amount, they can do a lot to ease the difficulties of the Filipinos impacted by the pandemic. It’s a sin to have this much money and be sluggish in acting,” he said.
He was seconded by Senator Sonny Angara in his Manila Bulletin column on Sunday, June 20, saying that having the funds returned to the Treasury “is a disservice to all the Filipinos who badly need the helping hand of the government during this pandemic.”
In a press conference on Monday, Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said he had no information on whether Duterte had any plans of calling for Congress to hold a special session.
Before adjourning in early June, the House approved a bill on second reading to extend to December 31, 2021, the validity of the expiring Bayanihan 2 funds. A counterpart bill was filed by Pangilinan on May 24, and is pending at the committee level at the Senate. – Rappler.com
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