MANILA— About 4,000 repatriated Filipino migrant workers are stuck in Metro Manila due to the P930-million government debt that forced the Philippine Red Cross to suspend state-funded COVID-19 tests, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said Tuesday.
A negative swab test result is required before OFWs are allowed to go home to their hometowns. Before the PRC suspended its testing, some 1,000 to 3,000 OFWs are ferried to their provinces per day after getting their results. This is now down to a maximum of 300 daily, Bello told reporters.
This meant that OFWs have to wait for "beyond one week" in quarantine facilities, from the previous 3 to 4 days, he said. Officials earlier said the PRC's testing load had to be diverted to other labs after the suspension.
"You can just imagine how many OFWs are now stranded in all the hotels in Metro Manila... The sooner this issue of payment is resolved, the better for our OFWs, and the better for the finances of our government," Bello said.
"We are talking of at least 4,000 plus stranded in Metro Manila."
About 100,000 more OFWs are set to go home in the remaining months of the year, he said.
PRC handled about 1 million COVID-19 tests, or around a fourth of the country's total 4.1 million tests so far. The organization said it would no longer accept specimens for PhilHealth funded-tests until the latter settled its P930 million debt.
Whistleblowers earlier accused PhilHealth officials of pocketing some P15 billion in state funds and approving allegedly overpriced projects and reimbursements to supposedly favored hospitals. At the height of the accusations, then PhilHealth chief Ricardo Morales resigned.
Morales had signed the memorandum of agreement for the PRC tests, National Task Force against COVID-19 chief implementer Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. said in a press briefing last Thursday.
Morales' successor Dante Gierran "just wanted to make sure all is in order" before settling the PRC dues and has asked for a comment from the budget department, Galvez said.
President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday said he would "look for money" to pay PhilHealth.
The government hopes to settle at least half of its debt to Red Cross "as soon as possible", and the rest "within a reasonable time," said Roque.