Senate OKs bill granting additional allowance for health workers, poor families during COVID-19 crisis

Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 24 2020 01:27 AM | Updated as of Mar 24 2020 05:19 AM

MANILA (UPDATED) - The Senate in a special session early Tuesday approved on third and final reading a measure that would grant additional compensation for frontline health workers, and a 2-month allowance for 18 million low-income households while most parts of the country are under a lockdown due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

With 12 plenary affirmative votes, no negative and no abstentions, senators passed Senate Bill No. 1418 or the "Bayanihan to Heal as One Act" after a 13-hour marathon plenary discussion. 

Eight other senators, who were unable to physically attend the special session, expressed their positions (7 affirmative, 1 negative) via phone patch.

The measure aims to provide a monthly allowance - amounting between P5,000 and P8,000 - to some 18 million indigent families for 2 months, while their livelihoods are crippled by the month-long lockdown in Luzon, Sen. Pia Cayetano said in her sponsorship speech.

"This health emergency is a black swan, and our current budget does not account for a challenge of this magnitude," Cayetano said.

Of the 18 million indigent families, 4.4 million families already receive P2,150 monthly from the government's conditional cash transfer program.

"We will just top-up their subsidies to reach the proposed P5,000 to P8,000 depending on their region so that they can avail of basic food, medicine, and toiletries," Cayetano said.

The government needs to support indigent families - especially in Luzon, which accounts for 72 percent of the Philippines' gross domestic product - because "without additional intervention," the country's growth may "reverse to negative 0.6 percent," the senator told her colleagues, citing data from the National Economic and Development Authority.

Sen. Manny Pacquiao added that it was important not to let the public go hungry to ensure peace and order in the streets.

"'Yan ang pinaka-worry ko talaga kasi iba pag nagutom. Lahat gagawin ng tao pag siya nagutom. Lahat gagawin niya para makakain lang siya kaya 'yan ang ingatan natin," said Pacquiao, noting that he too experienced hunger before he gained millions from his boxing career.

'SPECIAL RISK ALLOWANCE' FOR HEALTH WORKERS

The bill also guarantees that public health workers tending to COVID-19 patients and other related procedures will be entitled to an additional compensation on top of their usual hazard pay.

Hazard pay is usually 25 percent of an employee's salary, while the amount of the "special risk allowance" will depend on the law's implementing rules and regulations.

"Meron nang hazard pay talaga pero ibang klaseng hazard ito ngayon [dahil] nakakamatay kapag hindi ka nakapag-ingat," Sen. Grace Poe told the chamber.

The Senate had to use a "different nomenclature" for the additional benefit because "it may be against the law to give hazard pay twice," Sen. Panfilo Lacson said.

Public and private health workers who will contract COVID-19 while on duty will be entitled to receive P100,000 from the government, while public and private medical practitioners who died or will die from the disease will be given P1 million each, according to the bill.

The measure also mandates the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) to shoulder the hospitalization costs of all medical workers who will contract the disease.

"It is an expression of support for the work that they do," Cayetano said.

SOURCE OF FUNDS

The legislative opted to source the funds from GOCCs to ensure that items in the government's P4.1-trillion 2020 budget would remain "intact," Cayetano said.

"It is crucial for the government to keep fighting COVID-19 and to keep investing in our infrastructure program and our people so that economic sectors are jumpstarted and jobs are created as quick as possible once the outbreak is behind us," she said.

Some P175 billion can be sourced from "available cash" in various GOCC accounts, while another P100 billion remains in "various national government agencies' accounts outside the Treasury Single Account."

"The cost is clearly significant but we have the cash available. What we do not have is the flexibility to use the available cash to beat the virus," she said.

Without the bill, the executive branch remains unauthorized to use GOCC funds to procure medical supplies, and provide cash assistance to indigent families.

NO TAKE OVER OF PRIVATE BUSINESSES BUT...

Cayetano guaranteed her colleagues that the President will not be allowed to take over private businesses even if the crisis worsens.

"The bill we filed and sponsored does not have any take over provision. Never did and never will," she said.

But under the measure's section 4, the President "may take over their operations subject to the limits and safeguards enshrined in the Constitution" should private business owners "unjustifiably refuse or signified that they are no longer capable of operating their enterprises" as directed by the executive department.

Otherwise, the President may only "direct the operation of any privately-owned hospitals and medical and health facilities, including passenger vessels, and other establishments to house health workers, serve as quarantine areas, quarantine centers, medical relief and aid distribution locations."

Private entities that will be "directed" by the executive department must be given "reasonable compensation for any additional damage or costs incurred by the owner or the possessor of the subject property solely on account of complying with the directive."

The compensation shall be given to business owners "after the situation has stabilized or at the soonest time practicable," according to the bill.

OTHER PRESIDENTIAL POWERS

The bill also gives the President authority to "reprogram, reallocate, and realign any appropriation" in the 2020 budget provided that it will be used in the fight against COVID-19.

It also authorizes the President to:

  • Expedite and streamline accreditation of testing kits and facilitate prompt testing
  • Ensure that all Local Government Units (LGUs) are acting in line with the rules issued by the national government
  • Continue to enforce measures to protect the people from hoarding, profiteering, injurious speculations, manipulation of prices, product deceptions, and cartels 
  • Ensure that donation acceptance and distribution of health products intended to address the COVID-19 health emergency are not delayed
  • Be exempted from the procurement law, provided that purchases are related to medical supplies, basic necessities essential in COVID-19 fight
  • Prioritize the allocation and distribution of medical supplies to coronavirus-referral hospitals, public and private laboratories and health facilities that have capacities to test and care for suspected COVID-19 patients
  • Ensure the availability of credit to the productive sectors of the economy 
  • Liberalize the grant of incentives for the manufacture or importation of critical or needed equipment or supplies 
  • Require businesses to prioritize and accept contracts, subject to fair and reasonable terms, needed to boost government's fight against COVID-19
  • Regulate and limit the operation of all sectors of transportation through land, sea or air, whether private or public 
  • Authorize the removal of encroachments and illegal constructions in public place 
  • Continue to authorize alternative working arrangements for employees and workers in the Executive Branch, and if necessary, in other branches of government, and private sector
  • Conserve, regulate and ensure adequate supply of power, fuel, energy and water
  • Move statutory deadlines and timelines for the filing and submission of any document, the payment of taxes, other fees in order to ease the burden on individuals under community quarantine
  • Undertake such other measures as may be reasonable and necessary to enable the President to carry out the declared national policy subject to the Bill of Rights and other constitutional guarantees 

Those found violating the bill's provisions may be imprisoned for 2 months and/or fined between P10,000 and P1 million.

If the violator is a public official, he or she may "suffer perpetual or temporary absolute disqualification from office."

The President's authorized powers "shall be valid for 3 months, unless amended by Congress."

SAFEGUARDS

Under the Senate's version of the bill, the President will be required to submit to Congress a weekly report of the budget realignments the executive branch did to augment coronavirus-related funds.

Sen. Richard Gordon said that executive agencies should specify in that report which agencies provided the funds and how these were used.

"That way the people are assured na hindi mawawala ang pera dahil very sensitive ang tao ngayon na hindi dapat makurakot 'yung pera," he said.

Sen. Christopher "Bong" Go said the Senate passed the measure that gives due "flexibility" to the executive branch "out of trust."

"We want the executive to make sure that this is done in the most transparent manner and that every centavo should be accounted for," said Go, who was President Rodrigo Duterte's former special assistant. 

"We hope that your conscience will guide you in implementing this measure," he said.

Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto urged the executive branch to utilize the additional funds not just for dole outs, but also to procure more COVID-19 test kits and set up more hospitals dedicated to cater to patients who contracted the global pandemic.

"It is important to test so we know who are infected, we want to reduce rate of infection. Kung infected ka, we have to isolate you. That is how we have to treat the patient," he said.

As of March 23, 2020, COVID-19 has infected 462 patients in the Philippines. Of those patients, 33 died, 18 recovered, while the rest are still recuperating from the disease.