RH budget cut: 3 unanswered questions

MANILA, Philippines – It has been exactly a month since health officials first learned that the 2016 budget of the health department lost a P1-billion allocation ($20.94 million)* for contraceptives at the bicameral conference committee level.

For weeks, critics had nothing but strong words against the lawmakers at the bicam, particularly senators Loren Legarda and Vicente "Tito" Sotto III.

Advocates blame the two for allowing the budget cut, especially since the implementation of the reproductive health (RH) law only came in full swing in 2015 – months after the Supreme Court declared the law constitutional.

At least 3 bicam members themselves did not know the contraceptives fund was removed, so how exactly the budget cut was approved remains unclear. (READ: RH budget cut exposes problematic lawmaking in PH)

Below are some of the things we know so far, based on public pronouncements:

While it is good news the budget cut will not hinder the implementation of the RH law this 2016, at least 3 questions remain unanswered:

Why did the health secretary not know?

Garin first sounded the alarm over the budget cut in a television interview, and then in a media forum attended by major media outlets. It was only the first week of the new year, but already, health officials, advocates, and journalists were trying to make sense of the situation.

But what took the health secretary – a former lawmaker who championed the RH law in Congress – weeks to know about the budget cut?

Granted, the budget bill was signed into law during the holiday season, but this should be no excuse to a 3-term representative who knows the ins and outs of lawmaking – including the bicam process.

Perhaps former health secretary Enrique Ona was hinting at an oversight on the part of Garin when he said he was surprised the cut was only detected after the President's approval of the 2016 budget.

"Dapat may kausap kang member ng bicam, mino-monitor mo lalong-lalo na 'yung aspeto ng budget," Ona said earlier in January, during a press conference held by RH advocates. (You should talk to a member of the bicam. You should monitor it, especially the aspect of the budget.)

"In general nga, during the bicam, alam naming lahat na very critical 'yung mga agreement [that] will be agreed upon by the Speaker, Senate President, or the chairman ng budget committee, chairman of health [committee], Department of Health. Nagugulat ako na biglang lumabas 'yun nung tapos na."

(In general, during the bicam, we all know that the agreements that will be reached by the Speaker, the Senate President, or the chairman of the budget committee, the chairman of health committee, the Department of Health are very critical. I'm surprised the budget cut issue only came out when the budget process was already over.)

Legarda: pro- or anti-RH?

Budget Secretary Florencio Abad categorically said the the fund was "deducted in the Senate," and advocates have zeroed in on two senators: Sotto and Legarda.

They understand why Sotto, a staunch RH critic, would allow the budget cut, but what baffles them is Legarda's approval as committee chair. 

Legarda, a known supporter of the RH law, earlier said in a television interview she was assured that taking out the P1 billion would not affect the implementation of the law since the department would have more than enough savings from the previous year.

Besides, she said, the RH law is just one of the government programs close to her heart which suffered a budget cut. Even the National Greening Program (NGP) lost P1 billion, she added.

"That's my advocacy, environment…. So hindi ko sinasabi na hindi importante 'yung mga na-cut. Ang NGP, napakahalaga sa puso ko, reproductive health, napakalakas na adbokasiya at napakahalaga sa puso ko," she said, insisting that a cut in the budget does not mean less support for a program.

(That's my advocacy, environment…. So I'm not saying programs that suffered cuts are not important. NGP is very close to my heart, reproductive health is a great advocacy that is close to my heart as well.)

But former health secretary Esperanza Cabral, chair of the National Implementation Team of the RH law, is not convinced of Legarda's reasons.

"I think that she is lying through her teeth. How can she say that the program is a priority if she's not going to fund it? Obviously if you don't fund something, it is not your priority," she said in a January 18 Rappler Talk interview.

Cabral and Senator Pia Cayetano – principal sponsor of the RH law – doubt if Legarda is really an RH supporter.

"Coming from an RH supporter, I was surprised, because I thought Senator Loren was an RH supporter. I guess not. You should not do this if you're an RH supporter," Cayetano earlier said.

Legarda has denied holding one-on-one meetings with House appropriations chairman Davao City Representative Isidro Ungab, after former Albay Representative Edcel Lagman accused the two of horse-trading.

Why health facilities and medical assistance?

In defending the cut, Legarda said portions of the P1 billion were used to increase the budget of state universities and colleges, as well as other government agencies.

Even the health department benefitted, since a portion was realigned to provide for health facilities and medical assistance to indigent patients. 

Under the 2016 budget, the Health Facilities Enhancement Program has an allocation of P26.87 billion ($562.72 million), while the medical assistance to indigent patients has an allocation of P2.78 billion ($58.22 million). 

The allocation for the assistance to indigent patients increased by P1.04 billion ($21.78 million) under the 2016 budget, according to Legarda.

But the realignment begs the question: Why these two programs of the health department?

For Cayetano, it was "absolutely unnecessary" to realign a portion of the RH budget to health facilities and medical assistance since part of sin tax revenues "can cover that sufficiently."

"The sin tax law provides funding precisely for health enhancement facilities and medical assistance throughout the country, so why will you take it out of the [General Appropriations Act]? It does not make sense. The only logical conclusion is they really want to remove the RH budget, and they will place it somewhere else just to say other areas need it," the senator said in a mix of English and Filipino. 

"I don't have a problem if those in the Lower House say they need more medical assistance for their people, I understand that, let's fund that, but I'll say get it from sin tax. We need more hospitals? Renovations? A new hospital wing? No problem! But get it from sin tax."

The realignment comes at a crucial time, with the 2016 presidential elections just around the corner.

In past elections, courting the votes of the masses went beyond the usual television and radio advertisements. In 2004, for example, the distribution of PhilHealth identification cards coincided with the start of the campaign season. The cards even had the picture of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was then eyeing the presidency for a full 6-year term.

Kabataan Representative Terry Ridon earlier criticized the 2016 budget as an election budget that will "basically fund…election bribes."

A month since the contraceptives budget cut, the public clamor on the RH budget cut has relatively died down. Advocates, however, vow to make it an election issue, and hopefully uncover answers to these 3 crucial questions. Rappler.com

*US$1 = P47.75

Jee Y. Geronimo

Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.