On the same day that the President of the Philippines hailed them for their exemplary service to the people during the pandemic, health workers walked out of their jobs on August 30, National Heroes Day, to protest against the non-payment of their benefits.
The president of the National Kidney and Transplant Institute Employees Association, an affiliate of the Alliance of Health Workers, asked: “If we are heroes for you, why has it been a year now (and) we re still (on) the streets calling and shouting for the immediate release of our hard earned COVID-19 benefits?
Health workers from St. Luke’s Medical Center, UST Hospital and Lourdes Hospital were among those from at least 10 hospitals who were protesting against the non-payment of benefits due them.
Before the protests broke out, the government said that it had disbursed more than P14 billion worth of health benefits. Why, then, would the protests persist? Observably, the protest actions are taking place during a period of modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) in Metro Manila that was preceded by the harsher ECQ.
There is also a high rate of utilization of critical care facilities. The DOH reported on August 31 a 71 percent utilization of intensive care unit beds in the National Capital Region; utilization of isolation beds was also high at 66 percent. This is due to the higher number of new cases traced to the community transmission of the deadly Delta variant, as affirmed by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Testifying in Congress, one of the Health Undersecretaries disclosed that the DOH was addressing the observation made by the Commission on Audit (COA) that P539 million worth of payment of allowances lacked documentary support. What is at issue here is the payment of COVID-19 active hazard duty pay (AHDP) and special risk allowance (SRA) that were provided for in the Bayanihan 1 and Bayanihan 2 laws passed by Congress last year to cope with the national health emergency. These are over and above the existing grants of hazard pay to which health workers are entitled under the Magna Carta of Public Health Workers.
The Office of the President issued Administrative Order No. 35 stipulating that the AHDP is intended for “frontline human resources for health (HRH) only including all “civilian employees with regular, contractual, or casual positions, whether full-time or part-time; workers under contract of service or job order; barangay health workers whose duties and responsibilities are directly related to the government’s COVID -19 response; and frontline HRHs determined by local government units (LGUs).
Given the comprehensive coverage of the law, is it possible that the government may have underestimated the amount needed to pay all of the frontline health workers involved in the COVID-19 response?
If this question is not satisfactorily addressed then, indeed, it would give rise to speculation among members of Congress who say: If health workers did not receive the benefits to which they are entitled, “that’s fraud, that’s corruption.”
Government must assure the citizenry that this is not so. It must do what is needed to give the hard-working and hard-pressed frontline health workers their long-delayed benefits.