Advocates on RH budget cut: 'We've let our guard down'

RH BUDGET CUT. RH law advocates, posing as Senators Tito Sotto and Loren Legarda, dramatize the controversial RH budget cut during a press conference of the Purple Ribbon for RH Movement on January 13, 2016. Photo by Jee Y. Geronimo/Rappler

RH BUDGET CUT. RH law advocates, posing as Senators Tito Sotto and Loren Legarda, dramatize the controversial RH budget cut during a press conference of the Purple Ribbon for RH Movement on January 13, 2016. Photo by Jee Y.

Geronimo/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – The reduction of P1 billion ($21 million) in the 2016 budget for contraceptives served as a wake-up call for advocates of the reproductive health (RH) law that their fight is far from over. (READ: Health chief: No allocation for contraceptives in 2016 DOH budget)

"We have failed to monitor the process in Congress. We have rested on our laurels. RH advocates have put down their guard," former Albay Representative Edcel Lagman told advocates on Wednesday, January 13, during a press conference of the Purple Ribbon for RH Movement.

Lagman was among the panel of speakers at the forum who denounced the P1 billion budget cut meant for the purchase of family planning commodities such as condoms, pills, and IUDs. 

Former senator Leticia Ramos-Shahani agreed with Lagman and urged advocates to go to congressional hearings and understand the budget process. (READ: Scrapping of P1-B contraceptives budget enrages health groups)

"We cannot always blame the legislators. Let us also blame ourselves. Are we tired? We should not let our guard down until the last battle, and the GAA is the big battle," Shahani said. 

Lagman slammed the cut as "counterproductive" at a time when contraceptive use in the country is improving.

Former health secretary Esperanza Cabral, who chairs the National Implementation Team of the RH law, said two of the biggest RH problems will worsen because of the budget cut: access to effective and modern family planning methods, and teenage pregnancy. 

Horse-trading? 

Lagman is suspicious of what happened at the bicameral conference committee on the 2016 budget, where Health Secretary Janette Garin earlier said the cut was made. 

He pointed out that the 2016 National Expenditure Program specifically provides for modern and natural family planning supplies – a provision "adopted in toto by the House of Representatives."

"Nagbago lang pagdating sa bicameral conference committee…. Ang nangyari doon sa bicameral conference committee, ang unang session ay photo session. Pagkatapos niyan, recess na, wala nang conference, wala nang meeting, ang next meeting ay one-on-one ng chairman ng committee on appropriations and committee on finance sa Senado. At doon tinatapos 'yung bicam report," Lagman said.

(It just changed at the bicameral conference committee....What happens at the bicameral conference committe is the first session is a photo session. After that, it's recess already, no more conference, no more meeting, and the next meeting is the one-on-one of the chairmen of the Senate committees on appropriations and on finance. The bicam report is finalized there.)

He added: "Humingi kayo ng transcript ng deliberations, walang maipapakita sa inyo sapagkat walang deliberations. Ang nangyari, meeting ng dalawang chairman, naghorse-trading doon."

(Ask for a transcript of the deliberations. They can't show you any because there were no deliberations. What happened was at the meeting of the two charimen, there was horse-trading there.)

He blames the entire Congress, for "violating the very law it has enacted" since both houses approved the bicam report, and the Senate in particular, since it is where the proposed cut originated. 

Former health secretary Enrique Ona, who came on Wednesday to support the movement, said he was surprised the cut was only detected when the 2016 budget was already approved. 

"Dapat may kausap kang member ng bicam, mino-monitor mo lalong-lalo na 'yung aspeto ng budget (You should talk to a member of the bicam. You should monitor it, especially the aspect of the budget)," he said. 

Asked further if the health department could have prevented the budget cut, Ona told reporters: "Tulad ng sin tax, very important na bantayan natin ang sin tax because pwedeng mai-divert in some other ways na pwede namang sabihin na part na rin sa batas. Kaya nga sinabi very important ang process step by step until the time the President signs it."

(Like the sin tax, it's very important to keep a close watch over the sin tax because it can be diverted in some other ways that can be said is part of the law. That's why the step-by-step process is very important until the time the President signs it.)

'Post-mortem justifications'

Lagman criticized the explanations of Senators Loren Legarda and Vicente "Tito" Sotto III as "post-mortem justifications" of the cut. 

Sotto, a member of the bicam and a staunch RH critic, said the basis for the budget cut is the temporary restraining order (TRO) issued by the Supreme Court on the distribution and sale of implants. The TRO also temporarily prohibits the health department from granting any pending application for RH commodities. 

Legarda again justified the cut on Tuesday, January 12, by saying that aside from a P1.67-billion available allocation in the 2016 budget for the procurement of contraceptives, the department still has unobligated funds of P828 million under the Family Health and Responsible Parenting program as of December 2015. 

The chair of the Senate committee on finance said this can still be used in 2016, in addition to the commodities procured in the last quarter of 2015 that will overflow until midyear of 2016.

The health department's savings for 2015 can be another source of funds, Legarda explained, with possible savings that could amount to P8.8 billion, "more than enough to cover the P1-billion decrease."

"As chair of the committee on finance and oversight committee on public expenditures, I can guide the DOH in constructing their work and financial plan for the whole DOH budget and especially the FHRP, to make sure not a single person is denied access to family planning commodities," she said. – Rappler.com 

US$1 = P47.43

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.

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