MANILA (UPDATE) - Healthcare workers pounded the gates of the Department of Health with stones and keys, and symbolically locked its office during a rally Wednesday to demand for what they say are their long-overdue COVID-19 benefits and for the resignation of Health Secretary Francisco Duque.
"Saan napunta ang pera na sinasabing bilyun-bilyon na na-i-release na? Bakit andito pa rin kami? Bakit namin kailangan maningil sa kanila kung natanggap na namin? Ginagawa naman nila kaming bobo," said Cristy Donguines, President of the Jose Reyes Memorial Medical Center Employees Union-AHW.
(Where did the billions worth of funds that were supposedly released go? Why are we still here then? Why do we still have to ask for it, if we have supposedly received our benefits already? They are treating us as dumb people.)
The health department, in a press release in September, said that they have already released over P14 billion worth of benefits for healthcare workers in tranches, covering the period of September 15 to December 19, 2020 (Period 1), and December 20, 2020 to June 30, 2021 (Period 2).
But the healthcare workers are claiming otherwise.
"Naipasa namin lahat ng requirements bago pa mag-lapse ang Bayanihan 2. Up to now, nakikiusap pa rin kami sa DOH. Sana pakinggan ang healthcare workers dahil unti-unti umaalis na ang healthcare workers natin,” said Donell Siazon, President of the University of Sto. Tomas Hospital Employees Union.
(We already submitted all requirements before Bayanihan 2 lapsed. Up to now, we are still requesting the DOH. I hope the health workers will be heard because they are already slowly leaving the country.)
The president of the Alliance of Healthcare Workers (AHW) in a speech during the demonstration called on the DOH to give health workers what is due them for serving during the pandemic over the past two years, as a Christmas gift for the coming holidays.
Private hospital healthcare workers have yet to receive the compensation due for those who were infected with COVID while on duty, while COVID-19 benefits including the special risk allowance (SRA), meal, accommodation, and transportation benefit (MAT), and hazard pay have yet to be paid and released in full, they said.
The COVID-19 benefits for health workers were approved under the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act or Bayanihan 2 last year, allocating over P53.48 billion. The law lapsed in July this year.
The AHW claimed only 30 percent of the budget for MAT allowance covering September to December 2020 was released to DOH-retained hospitals.
It said that healthcare workers have yet to receive any amount for the MAT allowance for the period January-June 2021.
Donguines also called for the health department to release the Performance-Based Bonus due since 2019.
For allegedly failing to look after them, Duque must resign, health workers said.
"Secretary Duque, sana totoong bulag ka na lang, sana totoong bingi ka na lang, kasi hindi mo kami naririnig, at hindi mo kami nakikita," Donguines said at the protest action.
(Sec. Duque, since you are not listening to us and you don't see us, might as well that you actually become blind and deaf.)
In a press statement, the AHW also denounced what they say as the non-distribution of P367.158 million worth of medicines that are nearing expiration, as flagged by the Commission on Audit, the alleged P15 billion PhilHealth scam, and the purported P41 billion Pharmally anomaly.
"There is so much budget in the DOH and Duterte government, yet they always refuse to provide for healthworkers' COVID-19 benefits, safety and protection as well as the quality health service of the people," the group said.
The AHW said their protest action Wednesday will not be their last, and they will continue to call for accountability until they are compensated for the services they rendered during the pandemic.
At a Senate hearing last month, Duque told lawmakers that as advised by the Commission on Audit and based on the opinion of the Department of Justice, Congress needs to amend the law regarding the payment of special risk allowance so it could cover both medical and non-medical personnel of hospitals, as advised
According to him, under the current law, only health workers directly attending to COVID-19 patients are entitled to the SRA.
On Nov. 26, the health department in a press release reported it has already disbursed P15.7 billion worth of benefits for healthcare workers.
The DOH said that P7.9 billion of the amount was allotted for the Special Risk Allowance (SRA) of 486,585 health workers covering the period of Dec. 20, 2020 to June 30, 2021. Additionally, P1.2 billion for meals, accommodation, and transportation benefits (MAT) were allotted to 103,413 health workers.
"We are continuously coordinating with local government units to fast track the disbursement of remaining SRA funds to eligible healthcare workers for the period of December 20, 2020 to June 30, 2021,'' the DOH statement quoted Usec. Leopoldo Vega to have said.
The agency said that the MAT benefits were "to be provided as actual transportation arrangements, accommodation, and meals in order to lessen their burden from traveling from their homes to work and vice versa."
"As these benefits were originally intended to be provided in-kind or as actual services, health facilities that were not able to disburse these amounts for such purpose, have opted to return unspent funds to the DOH before the year ended, to prevent reversion of funds to the Treasury," it said. The funds were then used by the health department to support other pandemic response requirements.
The DOH recognized though that many health workers have yet to receive their MAT benefits.
But it assured the public that they are working with the Department of Budget and Management, and the Office of the President to secure funding and appropriate authority to provide MAT retroactively.
The DOH said it is streamlining its processes to ensure the equitable and prompt distribution of benefits.
Vega through the statement also announced its support for Senate Bill 2421, or the 'Act Granting Continuing COVID-19 Benefits to Public and Private Health Workers during the Period of the COVID-19 Pandemic".
The bill seeks to grant a unified healthcare worker benefit to all private and public health workers based on risk categorization in the spirit of equity.