Senate panel studying viability of RITM being absorbed into proposed CDC

Senators are now looking into the feasibility of having the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) be absorbed into a new government agency if the bill creating the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is enacted into law.

Senator Pia Cayetano, who is hearing the bill on the proposed CDC, said it is imperative to come up with a seamless measure to resolve the issue on the proposed creation of a Virology and Vaccine Institute of the Philippines (VVIP) whose functions may overlap with the RITM.

This, after an official from the Department of Health (DOH) told senators during the Senate sub-committee on health hearing on Thursday, November 24 that the RITM would be absorbed into the CDC if the bill is enacted into law.

In the event the bill creating the CDC is passed into law, DOH Disease Prevention and Control Bureau Director Razel Nikka Hao that the “totality of the RITM will be retained with the CDC.”

Cayetano said the sub-committee will conduct a technical working group (TWG) on the bills creating the CDC and the proposed Medical Reserve Corps so they can thresh out the salient provisions of the bill.

“Once the bill is seamless, walang butas (no loopholes), I can sponsor it. But I cannot sponsor a bill kung may mga butas-butas (if there are loopholes). Like, if we cannot resolve this issue on the Virology Institute and RITM. Ang hirap i-defend yun, and hindi rin ako clear (It’s hard to defend it and I’m also not sure),” Cayetano said in an interview.

“So we just need these things resolved, among a few other things,” she said.

During the hearing, RITM Director Celia Carlos told senators that the institute approved the proposed setup with the DOH to make the CDC structure more cohesive, because “if RITM were to function independently from the proposed CDC, there may be some difficulty in coordination.”

Carlos also explained that the VVIP will focus research mainly on different categories of organisms such as plants, animals and humans, while the RITM only concentrates on humans.

Sen. Christopher “Bong” Go, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health and Demography, one of the authors of the bill and pushed for the creation of a Medical Reserve Corps, backed moves to absorb the RITM to the CDC, and perhaps, expand its mandate.

“Dealing with diseases promptly and appropriately requires not only reorganization but also strengthening of the country’s health units committed to preventing and controlling such diseases,” Go said during the hearing.

“Perhaps while transferring some functions of the RITM to the CDC, we can also add other functions to the RITM,” he added.

Go noted that at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government relied on RITM for testing “because they were the only ones with the ability then.”

That is why when the RITM's budget was almost reduced in 2020 during the budget deliberations in 2019, Go said he did not agree and was instead able to convince other lawmakers to increase RITM's budget.

“Of all the budget cuts, the RITM, which is an important office, but we didn't know then because we didn't know that the COVID-19 would come. It was just me, I didn't agree to reduce it, and we increased it. Coincidentally, that was one of the most important offices when we discovered COVID-19,” Go pointed out.

Other than the RITM and the VVIP, Go also pushed for the passage of the bill on Medical Reserve Corps.

“Related to this, we also want to avoid instances where our health personnel are strained by the number of patients which hinders our capacity to combat diseases immediately and effectively. It is for these reasons, Madam Chair, that I proposed Senate Bills which will establish the Philippine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and a Medical Reserve Corps.,” he said.

“Madam Chair, in other countries, CDCs have been instrumental in this pandemic. As experts in the field of infectious diseases, they are at the forefront of the health battle against COVID-19. It is high time for us to have our own CDC,” Go stressed.

“We must also have a Medical Reserve Corps which may be called upon and mobilized to assist the national government and the local government units (LGUs) in their functions related to addressing the medical needs of the public in times of national emergencies,” he added.

Go said those who are deployed as part of the Medical Reserve Corps. must be properly compensated.

“On that note, I give my full support to the sub-ccommittee. I am confident that our initiatives will make the government better prepared to deal with any public health emergency in the future. Mas mabuti na pong nakahanda tayo at hindi tayo mabibigla (It's better to be prepared and not be surprised),” the senator said.