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The Rundown: PhilHealth suspends hospitals payments, DepEd moves class openings, Bayanihan Two, vaccine hopes

The number of COVID-19 cases nationwide continue to swell at an increasing pace, crossing the 150,000 mark this week. The Department of Health has documented 164,474 COVID-19 cases as of today, August 17. After another set of time-based recoveries were recorded yesterday, the active cases tally now stands at 49,034 and the death toll at 2,681. 

Amid these numbers, new obstacles again beset government agencies in charge of response efforts: hospitals will see a temporary slowdown of funding amid the ongoing PhilHealth corruption controversy; nations await as vaccine candidates undergo testing and seek regulatory approval; and the opening of classes from the primary to secondary level was moved to early October amid delivery issues. Meanwhile, the passage of the Bayanihan to Recover As One Act intends to offer new support for reviving the economy.

PhilHealth suspends cash advancements, questioned on ‘favoritism’

With corruption allegations within their ranks, the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) announced that it has suspended release of funds to hospitals covered by the Interim Reimbursement Mechanism (IRM). This came after senators grilled senior PhilHealth officials on alleged anomalous transactions within the agency. 

“Until we are confident that a system can be put in place to ensure that PhilHealth funds are not being corrupted, the IRM has to be suspended,” Sen. Risa Hontiveros said in a statement.

Under the IRM, PhilHealth can provide financial aid to Health Care Institutions (HCIs) during ”fortuitous events”, such as the ongoing pandemic. The subsidy is meant to help keep HCIs functional in an emergency situation.

Senators also hit alleged “favoritism” by the state insurer. The Southern Philippines Medical Center (SPMC) in Davao City, for instance, received the highest IRM subsidy, with funds amounting to P326-million. In contrast, only P263-million was allocated for the Philippine General Hospital, the designated COVID-19 referral hospital, in Manila City.

As of Sunday, August 16, the Davao Region has registered 1,753 cases, while Metro Manila has 90,093.

SPMC Officer in Charge Dr. Ricardo Audan defended the hospital, asserting that SPMC is “the biggest hospital in the country” whose coverage extends to patients across the entirety of Mindanao, not just Davao City. 

PhilHealth denied allegations of favoritism in a statement released on Friday, August 14, maintaining the “legality and necessity of the IRM in the overall COVID-19 response of the country”. Nevertheless, the agency promised to cooperate with the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission in their ongoing investigations, asserting that they “will not hesitate to punish anyone found guilty of wrongdoing.”

Opening of classes moved, test broadcast errors

Education Secretary Leonor Briones announced in a virtual press briefing last Friday, August 14, that the opening of classes for school year 2020-2021 has been pushed back from its original start date of August 24 to October 5. The order covers public schools from elementary to senior high school.

With the deferment, Briones said that the agency will help relieve “logistical limitations” faced by areas placed under the MECQ, while other regions are set to continue preparations including “orientations, their dry runs, and their delivery of learning resources”.

As for private schools, DepEd clarified that they may proceed with their original schedule provided that distance learning is in place.

Last Tuesday, August 11, viewers criticized the test broadcasts for DepEd’s televised learning material after several grammatical errors were spotted in the questionnaire. The agency clarified that the dry run was to assess whether they had the capacity to broadcast once the school year starts, but noted that they will correct errors in the material. 

Na-trace na namin anong nangyari sa dry run na ‘yan. Ang materyal ay galing sa aming curriculum group, tapos in-input ng aming technical people. Nagkaroon ng error sa pag-transfer at sa pagkopya,” Briones said in a virtual Malacañang briefing.

(We traced what happened during that dry run. The material came from the curriculum group, which was then encoded by our technical people. There was an error in transferring and copying [the material].)

Bayanihan ‘too little’

Last Monday, August 10, the House of Representatives approved on its third and final reading the proposed Bayanihan to Recover as One Act. The law sets aside P162-billion to a variety of support packages to various government agencies. Some of the biggest allotments include a P51-billion budget to inject capital to government financial institutions, P20-billion for cash and loans to agriculture and fishery industries, and P10-billion for aid to transportation sector businesses and workers.

The Senate passed its own version of the bill last July 28, but only provided for P140-billion in assistance. Both chambers agreed on the House’s proposed P162-billion last Sunday, August 16.

But the bill was not free from dissenting opinions. ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro blasted the earmarked P162-billion as “too little” to effectively respond to the worsening health and economic crises. Castro and the other five members of the Makabayan bloc were the only ones to vote against the bill.

Russian vaccine eyed

In his evening address last August 11, Duterte revealed his intention of procuring the vaccine, dubbed Sputnik V, being developed by Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute. The chief executive offered to present himself as a test subject and expressed confidence that the vaccine will be ready by December, in time for Filipinos to “enjoy a peaceful Christmas” free from COVID-19. 

Malacañang later backtracked, however, saying that Duterte could only be administered with the vaccine in May 2021, after clinical trials are expected to be completed.

Duterte thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for supposedly offering the vaccines for free. “Maligayangmaligaya ako kasi ang Russia kaibigan natin itoWala naman silang sinasabi ‘bayaran mo,’” explained the President.

(I am very happy because we are friends with Russia…They did not tell us to “pay up”.)

The Russian-made vaccine, however, needs to secure approval before it can be deployed for widespread use. The World Health Organization also attested that they do not have enough information on the vaccine candidate for it to be assessed. The Russian government claimed that the vaccine had undergone testing and was deemed “safe”, but only the phase I results from the clinical trials have been published, with reports surfacing that the Philippines would be the site for the product’s last stage or phase III trials. 

Time-based recoveries

Under their Oplan Recovery program, the Department of Health (DOH) will announce “time-based” recoveries every Sunday, according to a media briefing held by Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire last August 14. Cases will be tagged as recovered once symptoms have disappeared and after reaching a certain number of days in isolation—even without further testing.

Since its implementation, the program reported over 37,000 time-based recoveries on July 30 and over 40,000 on August 16.

Quarantine measures over Metro Manila, other provinces may ease

Metro Manila, Cavite, Bulacan, and Laguna may be ready to ease their lockdown rules by August 19, said National Task Force Against COVID-19 Chairperson and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana last Monday, August 10.

“The new cases are going down, kahapon 3,000-plus na lang down from 6,000 from previous days,” Lorenzana said in an interview. “We are doing well. Sa tingin ko, if the trend continues, we will be ready to go back to GCQ by August 18.”

(Yesterday, we only had 3,000-plus cases, down from 6,000 cases from previous days.)

The chairperson did not disregard the possibility of extending the 15-day lockdown; if new cases were to spike up to 6,000 to 10,000 a day, MECQ would need to be extended, he said.

But on the same day, DOH reported the Philippines’ highest single-day surge thus far of COVID-19 cases, indicating a record-breaking 6,958 new cases. 

Datos na mismo ang nagbulgar sa palpak na panukala ni Lorenzana para sa adelantadong pagbabalik sa GCQ ng NCR,” labor group Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino said in a Facebook post. 

(The data itself reveals Lorenzana’s flawed policy calling for a hasty return of the GCQ over NCR.)

Duterte is set to announce new quarantine measures later today, August 17.

By Kim Balasabas

By Chloe Novenario

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