Earlier this year, we filed Senate Resolution 974 calling for an inquiry on the state of health financing in the country to determine needed legislation for strengthening our healthcare system. While Congress was on recess for the national campaign, our office conducted numerous consultative meetings with government agencies, private sector proponents and stakeholders to follow through on the resolution’s objectives.
The Senate Committee on Finance conducted one of these meetings in early April. Various government agencies and private organizations, including the academe shared their key observations, initiatives, and recommendations on enhancing our pandemic resilience.
The DOH Epidemiological Bureau (DOH-EB) first discussed the difficulties of transporting Covid-19 samples. Apparently, limited manpower and resources hampered the Bureau’s bio-surveillance activities such that laboratories outside Luzon still preferred to send samples to Manila despite having Philippine Genome Center hubs in Visayas and Mindanao. The DOH-EB also reported how there is no existing courier to regularly collect samples from the regions, especially those from geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas.
To address these concerns, the DOH initiated talks with both public and private labs to create a consortium that would pool their resources towards expanding the country’s bio-surveillance capabilities. The DOH also recently established its Office of Health Laboratories in response to the need for improved health diagnostics in the country. This new office is mandated to establish the Philippine Health Laboratory System — a network of public health laboratories that would deliver diagnostic services towards achieving universal healthcare and responding to future public health emergencies.
Meanwhile, the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) underscored the need for a health emergency playbook or a National Preparedness and Response Plan and recommended that all COVID-19 related (i.e. pandemic preparation) investments should be regularly reviewed and updated.
Dr. Kenneth Hartigan-Go from the Ateneo School of Government and former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Director General then pressed the need for improved management to efficiently distribute human resources for health for better response. Moreover, Dr. Hartigan-Go called for a review of procurement procedures to be competitive in a fast-paced emergency and a re-evaluation of rules on unproven therapies considering the lack of regulatory actions on the same.
For its part, the DTI shared its programs targeting local manufacturers of critical products. Among these are the Manufacturing Repurposing Program and the Mask Para sa Masa where Filipino firms were urged to repurpose their existing manufacturing capacity to produce medical-grade PPEs and other critical equipment and supplies. Another was the Domestic Bidders Preference Certification Program where local firms participating in government procurement projects are given a certificate of preference including a 15-percent price advantage over foreign bidders.
However, the Confederation of Philippine Manufacturers of PPEs (CPMP) argued that some of these initiatives did not flourish as expected given that actual orders for PPEs were far fewer than the demand projected by the manufacturers who were tapped. This translated to such a huge loss, as CPMP shared that its partner-firms invested some $35 million (or about ₱1.8 billion) and re-assigned 7,450 workers for the repurposing initiative amid the pandemic. As a way forward, the CPMP pushed for the passage of the Pandemic Protection Act (SBN 2311) that we filed, as the measure seeks to create a system of stockpiling that would benefit local manufacturers. They also called for the creation of a local facility that can test local PPEs to comply with medical regulations.
The issue is in line with the observation of former health secretary Dr. Manuel Dayrit who said that the Philippine health system is operating in silos with an apparent lack of integration among national government agencies. Dr. Al Serafica concurred and reiterated the need for more communication between all stakeholders to initiate cooperative discussions and enable the health ecosystem to develop local products needed for future pandemics.
On the other hand, the National Institutes of Health of the University of the Philippines (UP-NIH) called for the convening of a Post-Pandemic Commission which will oversee various independent assessments to review how the laws and regulations were implemented during the pandemic, and determine how the country’s system can be further improved and reformed. Among the areas that should be reviewed, the UP-NIH argued, is the implementation of PhilHealth’s Covid-19 packages, particularly on the prevailing claims filing and payment system to explain the accumulation of substantial arrears to hospitals.
While the current Congress is already coming to a close, we aim to advocate and to deliberate on all these recommendations with the next administration that the Filipinos have already elected. Clearly, the Covid-19 pandemic has been the greatest humanitarian crisis we’ve faced in recent history. We need to learn from the real suffering our people have endured and build back a better, more resilient Philippines.
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Senator Sonny Angara has been in public service for 15 years — nine years as Representative of the Lone District of Aurora, and six as Senator. He has authored and sponsored more than 250 laws. He is currently serving his second term in the Senate