DOH proposes simpler, consolidated benefits for health workers

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 24, 2021) — The Department of Health (DOH) has proposed simpler and consolidated special allowances for healthcare workers on the frontlines in the fight against COVID-19.

This, as the Senate tackled bills that will grant continuing COVID-19 benefits for private and public workers in the health sector.

During the joint hearing of the Senate Finance, Ways and Means, and Health Committees on Friday, the Health department presented the "One COVID-19 Allowance" — a consolidation of the existing benefits of healthcare workers like the Special Risk Allowance (SRA), Active Hazard Duty Pay (AHDP), Meal, Accommodation, and Transportation Allowance (MAT), and life insurance.

The "One COVID-19 Allowance" is primarily based on the risk exposure of healthcare workers to COVID-19.

Based on the proposal, those with low exposure will get ₱3,000 per month, ₱6,000 for those with medium exposure, and ₱9,000 for those with a high level of exposure to coronavirus patients.

"The DOH recognizes that while healthcare workers may be exposed in different levels, they are nonetheless exposed and thus, deserving of the benefits accorded to them by law," Health Secretary Francisco Duque said.

The department expects the "One COVID-19 Allowance" to cover more than 526,000 healthcare workers.

If passed into law, the Senate will have to find around ₱50.5B to finance this next year since there is no allocation for special allowances for healthcare workers in the proposed 2022 national budget.

"Whatever we need for budget for this, we can search, it's budget season. I'm sure there are unnecessary funding out there that would better best be coursed to this measure that can help our healthcare workers," Senate Majority Floor Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said.

"As you know, we're also constrained by the Constitution. We cannot add to the total of the present budget. We can only align... It's very difficult for ₱50 billion to materialize out of nothing," Senate Finance Committee Chairperson Sonny Angara added.

While he supports the continued COVID-19 benefits for health workers, Senator Joel Villanueva said risk exposure is hard to measure.

He even cited a DOH briefer that there is a high percentage of non-medical health workers who were also affected by the deadly virus.

Villanueva is instead proposing a uniform amount to be given to all healthcare workers. As to how much, the senator said this will depend on the actual number of beneficiaries.

"Even if I wanted to support 'yung (the) low, medium, high...I'm not sure if I'll agree with the basis of determining the risk. Because I believe it would depend on the surges," he said.

The Senate leadership expressed support for the proposed measures and vowed to work for their immediate passage.

Healthcare workers' reaction

As for hospital administrators like Dr. Gerardo Legaspi - Director of the Philippine General Hospital - the DOH's proposal is easier to implement and healthcare workers will receive a higher daily special allowance.

"This will be really equitable to the work that they do. We support and welcome very much this development of stratifying the allowance based on risk and the work that they do," Legaspi said during the hearing.

Different organizations of healthcare workers did not have an immediate comment on the consolidated benefits proposal since they still need to tackle it with their members. But they have been clamoring for fair and just allocation, and timely release of the benefits.

"We agree that all healthcare workers, medical and non-medical, regardless of employer, whether in public and private, regardless of the status of employment, whether permanent or casual, contractual, job order, contract of service, or outsourced, deserve the COVID-19 benefits and compensation during the period of the pandemic," Filipino Nurses Unite President Maristela Abenojar said.

Offensive joke

In the middle of the hearing, Philippine Medical Association president Dr. Benito Atienza complained about how they were treated by some lawmakers during a hearing in the House of Representatives.

"Sana po sabihan niyo po ang lower house, the doctors po pag inimbita nila, wag naman nila pagagalitan," Atienza told the senators.

[Translation: I hope you ask the lower house that when they invite doctors, they should not berate them.]

Angara then cracked a joke to make the mood lighter, but Senator Richard Gordon did not take it well.

"Walang magagalit sa inyo dito, alam nyo bakit? Kasi nag-log-out na si Senator Gordon kaya wala nang magagalit sa inyo," Angara told Atienza.

[Translation: No one will be angry at you here, do you know why? Because Senator Gordon has logged out so no one will be angry at you.]

"I find it offensive Senator Angara. Please do not joke about that," Gordon called out Angara.

The situation touched a raw nerve in the word war between Gordon and President Rodrigo Duterte.

"My family was totally distressed by this. It is not easy, hindi madali. Mumurahin ka ng Pangulo natin, and it's fine with me, kaya ko yan. Pag nanakot na siya, magsasalita na siya na papatay siya at bababuyin ako hanggang kamatayan, kaya ko pa rin yan," the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee chairman said.

[Translation: My family was totally distressed by this. It is not easy, not easy. Our President swears at me, and it's fine with me, I can do that. When he threatens me, saying he will kill and desecrate me until death, I can still do that.]

"I realized that was ill timed given the current events and what the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee is investigating. So my apologies Chairman Gordon," Angara said.

Cooler heads prevailed after Gordon accepted Angara's apology.

Presidential ally and Senate Health Committee Chairperson Bong Go assured Gordon the President meant no harm in the verbal tussle.

"Hindi naman po sa dinedepensahan ko ang ating Pangulo pero hindi niya po magagawa yun na pumatay ng isang tao. At alam naman ni Senator Gordon na mahal ka ng Pangulo e," Go said.

[Translation: I'm not defending our President but he's not a killer. And Senator Gordon knows that the President loves you.]