MANILA, Philippines – Senators approved the proposed P5.024-trillion budget for 2022, realigning funds to boost the government’s pandemic response programs and financing the expected reopening of more face-to-face classes nationwide.
With 22 affirmative votes, no negatives votes nor abstentions, senators passed House Bill 10153 or the 2022 General Appropriations Bill (GAB) on third and final reading on Wednesday, December 1, mere minutes after the measure’s second reading approval.
This was made possible with President Rodrigo Duterte certifying the GAB as urgent, in effect waiving the three-day mandatory interval between the second and third reading of measures.
The Senate and the House will now form a bicameral conference committee, which will thresh out conflicting provisions in their respective versions of the GAB.
One major difference is the allotment for the Department of Health (DOH), the agency tasked to oversee programs combatting the spread of the coronavirus.
Senators increased to P230.11 billion the DOH’s proposed budget for 2022, significantly higher than the House-approved P182.67 billion.
Senate finance committee chairman Sonny Angara said the increases were due to the funds they realigned from other agencies to fund the benefits and compensation of healthcare workers, the emergency hiring of medical frontliners, purchase of laboratory equipment, operations of laboratories like the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, operation of the DOH’s Epidemiology and Surveillance Program, and the hiring of 25,000 contact tracers.
“May pagbabago man sa mga detalye at mga halaga, hindi pa rin nagbabago ang pinakaadhikain ng ating panukalang badyet – na magsilbi itong pangunahin paraan para ipagpatuloy ang pag-ahon ng bansa mula sa pandemya,” said Angara.
(There might have been changes in details and amounts, but our primary goal has not changed – that this proposed budget will be the means by which we continue the country’s recovery from the pandemic.)
The DOH’s Health Facilities Enhancement Program also received an additional P3.23 billion in the Senate version of the bill, for a total of P20.71 billion to be used for the construction, upgrading, and expansion of healthcare facilities and procurement of hospital equipment.
Government hospitals across the country will also get extra funding: P4.36 billion for facilities in Metro Manila, and P10.72 billion for hospitals in other regions.
There would also be P24.42 billion for assistance to indigent paitents.
To help strengthen the manpower in the health sector, senators also set aside P1.56 billion for state universities and colleges (SUCs) with schools of medicine.
NTF-ELCAC budget gets a boost, too
Angara earlier said a significant chunk of the additional funds given to the health sector were taken from the P24 billion senators slashed from the controversial National Task Force Against Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).
Senators initially wanted to just allot P4 billion to the NTF-ELCAC as the task force that had become notorious for red-tagging government critics and civilians also failed to submit documents to the senators on how their 2021 budget had been spent so far.
Senators, however, later agreed to increase it to P10.8 billion after persistent lobbying from former Philippine National Police chief-turned-Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa.
Before the budget was passed on Wednesday, Dela Rosa even made one last appeal for a higher NTF-ELCAC budget.
“I understand that the budgetary cut of P24 billion is due to the failure of the NTF-ELCAC to disclose how their budget was spent. However, I appeal to the hearts of my colleagues to give more consideration in order to end this decades-long insurgency. Without our budgetary support, the country’s insurgency problem might resurrect again,” said Dela Rosa.
It was at this point when Angara informed the Senate plenary that the finance committee had indeed considered Dela Rosa’s concerns and agreed to increase the NTF-ELCAC’s budget by P6.8 billion.
Keeping face-to-face classes safe
As stipulated in the Constitution, the education sector gets the lion’s share of the 2022 budget, with increases of P6.74 billion for the Department of Education, P26.57 billion for SUCs, and P1.46 billion for Technical Education And Skills Development Authority.
Angara said the additional funds are meant to support schools when more educational institutions are allowed to hold in-person classes in 2022.
Senators also added special provisions in the GAB that would allow public schools and SUCs to use their allotments for maintenance and other operations to improve the ventilation in their facilities and procure COVID-19 tests and other necessary supplies to comply with health protocols.
“This will be particularly important as we consider the expansion of face-to-face classes to more schools across the country…. Funding support will remain for our schools as they make the transition to safe face-to-face operations,” said Angara.
On November 15, the Philippines reopened face-to-face classes in select areas after almost two years school were kept shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic. – Rappler.com