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₧18-B Bayanihan fund hangs as June 30 nears

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FORTY-EIGHT civil society groups and concerned citizens are asking President Duterte and Congress leaders to convene a special session to extend Bayanihan 2 before it expires on June 30, warning that “over P18 billion in unused funds for critical coronavirus response programs…will expire, stifling our pandemic recovery efforts.”

However, two senators are saying the action to make sure these funds do not go to waste can be done solely on the part of the Executive.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III, one of those addressed by the 48 groups, said he was open to either option—President Duterte asking them to hold a special session, or having the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and Executive department agencies simply move on the funds, as suggested by Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon.

“Most of the provisions of Bayanihan 2 involve appropriations.  DBM [Department of Budget and Management] can release the Bayanihan 2 budget between now and June 30, without need for a special session,” Drilon told BusinessMirror in an SMS on Sunday.

For his part, Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan said, “government needs to obligate the P173 billion for Bayanihan to Recover As One Act or the Bayanihan 2 before the end of the law’s effectivity on June 30 to ramp up Covid vaccination and eventually recover from the lockdown-caused economic slump.”

Pangilinan is the author of Senate Bill No. 2218 proposing to extend Bayanihan 2, but that bill was not passed on third and final reading when the Senate adjourned sine die on June 4. The House earlier passed on third reading a bill for a Bayanihan 3, which includes specific provisions for the extension of Bayanihan 2 appropriations until the end of 2021.

Sotto, in a text message to BusinessMirror, said on Sunday: “I can live with both suggestions. It is up to the President.”

In the House, Speaker Lord Allan Velasco had yet to comment on the urgent appeal of the 48 groups. However, the Ways and Means panel chairman, Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, favors a special session.

Salceda told the House leadership that the P18.4 billion in unobligated funds are important to address the current surge in Covid-19 cases.

He said the funds that will expire include P6.6 billion for lab testing and HRH, and about P873 million for contact tracing.

“Without such extension, provinces potentially face a situation of having their contact tracing and healthcare response capacities drastically reduced for at least 26 days (from the June 30 expiry of contracts to July 26, the opening of session) during a period of Covid-19 case surges,” he said.

“Local response teams and civil society groups have requested Congress to pass a bill providing for an extension of the appropriations and capacity to obligate and disburse funds until December 31, 2021. The extension is a matter of life and death in many communities, as contact tracers and augmented human resources for health (HRH) were hired under Bayanihan 2 contracts that will also expire by June 30,” Salceda wrote.

The bills in the House and Pangilinan’s bill “permit Congressional leaders to take further action on the extension of Bayanihan 2,” said the petition-letter addressed to Duterte, Sotto and Velasco, a copy of which was sent to media outlets.

Drilon, sought for reaction to the call of the 48 groups, said that first, it’s important to determine “what remains to be implemented in Bayanihan 2?” He stressed that DBM action is what’s needed to unlock the fund releases, but that implementing agencies that sought the monies under Bayanihan 2 should move quickly as well.

Pangilinan, meanwhile, noted that “while the Department of Health is seeking an additional P66 billion for Covid response, about P173 billion from Bayanihan 2 law have not been obligated or released yet with the expiration of the law on June 30, just 10 days away.” That amount is about a quarter of the total funds legislated for Covid response under Bayanihan 2, he noted, citing Department of Finance data.

Pangilinan said that they learned, from the Senate Committee of the Whole hearing, that the P173 billion will be sourced from the unspent funds of several government agencies and tax collections.

“Government agencies need to shape up because with this big amount, they can do a lot to ease the difficulties of the Filipinos impacted by the pandemic. It’s a sin to have this much money and be sluggish in acting,” he said.

Pangilinan earlier led the call to convene the Senate Committee of the Whole which conducted two hearings on the vaccination program.

He said efforts of the Department of Health and the Inter-Agency Task Force to vaccinate Filipinos remain wanting, even though this is seen as key to fully opening up the economy, helping people return to their jobs and giving opportunities to the jobless.

Pangilinan cited the case of Italy, one of the countries which imposed strict lockdowns, and which vaccinated around 13.7 million of its citizens.

This resulted, Pangilinan added, in an 80-percent drop in the spread of infection, 85-percent drop in the rate of hospitalization, and 95-percent drop in deaths.

Noting the spikes in Covid cases in the provinces, Pangilinan, meanwhile, said government needs a lot of catching up to do to achieve its promised herd immunity of 70 million Filipinos inoculated by the end of the year.

“We are apprehensive because right now we are just reaching 100,000 jabs a day and the projection is that by end of the year we should have done 70 million jabs. If we compute, we should be averaging 700,000 a day. We are very much behind,” Pangilinan said, in a mix of English and Filipino, in a radio interview.

‘Deadly blunder’

In their open letter to Duterte, Sotto and Velasco, the 48 signatories said, “Failing to extend Bayanihan 2 before it expires on June 30 will be a deadly blunder: one that would cause needless suffering and countless deaths.”

The Covid-19 pandemic, said the civil-society and labor and other sectoral groups, “still rages in our country. Positivity rates in all regions are beyond the World Health Organization “comfort level” of 5 percent or less. The National Capital Region is still very much under threat with many hospitals already lacking intensive care unit capacity. There have been recent outbreaks in the Bicol Region, Visayas, and Mindanao.”

It cited experts as saying that, to defeat the virus, funding is needed “not only for health, but for its social determinants, too. If Bayanihan 2 expires at the end of June 2021, funding for key sectors like public health, public transportation, education, agriculture, tourism, labor, and social welfare would be lost.”

The coalition said, “even already obligated but undisbursed funds under Bayanihan 2 would not be paid, disrupting operations of critical pandemic response programs. This would stifle our ability to respond to the pandemic and to revive our economy.”

The group cited a May 31, 2021 financial report from DBM showing that over “P18.4 billion in unobligated funds for critical pandemic response and recovery programs are about to expire. Program implementation has been sluggish, and these programs are still urgently needed.”

Agencies involved

These unobligated funds include:

For the Department of Health, P6.6 billion for laboratory testing services and hiring of human resources for health;

For the Department of Interior and Local Government, P873 million to hire and train contact tracers;

For the Department of Education, P4.6 billion covering resources for digital education and basic education continuity plus subsidies and allowances for qualified students;

For the Department of Agriculture, P1.2 billion for priority programs for affected farmers and agricultural workers;

For the Department of Labor and Employment, about P560 million for various programs to mitigate the negative impacts on formal and informal workers;

For the Department of Public Works and Highways, P1.0 billion for roads leading to tourism destinations, which require active transport infrastructure facilities;

For the Department of Social Welfare and Development, P1.3 billion for Covid-19 response and recovery interventions;

For the Commission on Higher Education, about P1.96 billion for subsidies and allowances for students and for the development of smart campuses; and

For the Department of Transportation, about P4.6 billion of the P5.6 billion for service contracts for public transport workers

“All this critical funding would revert to the Treasury with the expiration of Bayanihan 2 and will be unavailable for spending for these much-needed pandemic response and recovery programs,” the coalition warned.

Among the 48 signatories are: Citizens’ Budget Tracker (CBT), Move As One Coalition, Healthcare Professionals Alliance Against Covid-19 (HPAAC), Action for Economic Reforms (AER), Akbayan Youth, Albay Youth Brigade, AltMobility PH, Ateneo School of Government Alumni Association Inc., Commuters of the Philippines (CommutersPH), Federation of Free Workers (FFW), Galing Pook Foundation, Philippine Business for Education (PBEd), and Volunteers of the Focolare Movement.

Read full article on BusinessMirror

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