MANILA (UPDATED) -- The Department of Health (DOH) on Wednesday said private hospitals are 'accountable' for the delayed disbursement of benefits to health care workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Between September 2020 and June 2021, the DOH released nearly P15-billion worth of allowances and monetary benefits for 1.2 million medical workers, data from the agency showed.
"Ang private hospital ang may accountability dahil sila ang nakakakilala sa kanilang health care workers," Health Secretary Francisco Duque III told members of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee.
(Private hospitals are the ones accountable because they know who their health workers are.)
"May sistema sila to properly identify who should be recipient of these benefits," he said.
(They have a system to properly identify who should be the recipient of these benefits.)
Several senators, however, noted that thousands of health workers have been claiming that they have yet to receive benefits guaranteed to frontliners under the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act and the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act.
"You have a tidal wave of people in the country saying hindi sila nakaka-receive (they have not received it)," Senate Blue Ribbon Committee chair Richard Gordon told Health officials.
"Even if you show that presentation, if they maintain their position, we have a problem," he said.
Opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros added that there is a discrepancy between statements coming from the DOH and health worker groups.
"Something's got to give. Ano ba ang totoo? There is a problem somewhere," she said.
Under the law, health workers attending to COVID-19 patients are entitled to receive special risk allowances and hazard pay on top of their usual salaries.
Medical frontliners must also receive meal, accommodation and transportation allowances, as well as free swab tests.
Duque said some of the health workers who did not receive special benefits may be those who were not directly in contact with COVID-19 patients.
"Gusto natin bigyan sila lahat pero alam niyo naman na kulang ang gobyerno sa pondo," the Health chief said.
(We want them all to receive these benefits but as we all know, government funds are limited.)
"Kung puwede lahat na lang ng tao sa ospital bayaran natin... My problem is the resources, once shared across many individuals, baka walang impact yung kanilang makukuha," he said.
(If possible, we want to give these to all hospital workers... My problem is the resources, once shared across many individuals, might not be too significant.)
The Commission on Audit (COA) earlier noted that the DOH failed to spend some P11 billion authorized under the Bayanihan laws as well as other funds sourced from foreign loans.
State auditors also underscored that the DOH has P4.8 million in "unpaid financial assistance to health care workers."
The DOH prioritized releasing these benefits to some hospitals who immediately requested for funds, Health Assistant Secretary Maylene Beltran said.
"Nagre-request po kami ng higher amount and DBM (Department of Budget and Management) is also giving us an amount lower than we requested," she said.
DBM officer-in-charge Tina Canda refuted the DOH, saying: "We released P9.02B for SRA (special risk allowance). They reverted an amount."
The DBM cannot release additional funds as of the moment as the Bayanihan laws have already expired, Canda said.
"Unfortunately, without a law, we cannot appropriate any amount," she said.
Senate Committee on Finance chair Sonny Angara said the DOH is authorized to continuously release special benefits and allowances for health frontliners while the country is still under a state of emergency.
"Puwede pa din ibigay 'yun [SRA] so long as the national emergency enforced by the president is there. Yung savings puwede yun i-realign [to fund it]," he said.
(They can still give the SRA so long as the national emergency enforced by the president is there. They can also realign savings to fund it.)
Other senators added that the DOH should be more liberal and extend these monetary benefits to other hospital workers who are not directly tending to COVID-19 patients.
"Kung nasa ospital ka in a pandemic situation, ang assumption ay lahat exposed [sa COVID]," Gordon said.
(If you are in the hospital in a pandemic situation, the assumption is everyone is exposed to COVID.)
Last year, Duque blamed his staff for the late release of cash benefits for COVID-19 frontliners.
Duque said his agency would try to find funds that can be realigned to fund benefits for health care workers.
The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee is expected to reconvene on August 25 to further discuss the COA findings on the DOH's expenditures.