PhilHealth to now cover saliva-based RT-PCR tests

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 6) — The Department of Health has ordered the state health insurer to come up with the necessary mechanisms to cover patients’ saliva-based RT-PCR testing.

In a recently released memorandum dated March 31, the DOH asked the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. or PhilHealth “to develop the appropriate payment and provider engagement mechanisms” for the saliva test.

“No additional payment shall be charged to patients beyond the PhilHealth coverage for the conduct of saliva-based RT-PCR testing,” the document signed by Health Secretary Francisco Duque III read.

The Philippine Red Cross, a humanitarian organization that has rolled out saliva testing in January after securing government approval, expects more Filipinos to avail of the cheaper and non-invasive process now that PhilHealth would pay for it.

“PhilHealth can now pay Red Cross for the saliva RT-PCR and it can be done real fast,” Senator Richard Gordon, PRC chairman, told CNN Philippines’ News Night on Monday.

PRC offers the saliva test at ₱2,000 each, almost half the price of a swab test. It is also seen to minimize the exposure of healthcare workers, since patients simply have to spit at least 2 to 3 ml of saliva to a properly labeled, graduated, sterile, and wide-mouth container.

The health worker can ensure the proper collection of specimen from a distance of at least one meter in an open or well-ventilated area, according to DOH guidelines.

In a statement on Tuesday, the DOH stressed that only licensed laboratories certified by the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine or RITM can administer the saliva test using the government-approved test kits. It noted that nasopharyngeal and oropharyngeal or NPS and OPS swabs remain the “standard specimen” for detecting the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus through reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction or RT-PCR testing.

It is not to be confused with antigen and antibody tests, which can only detect the body’s immune response.

Under the DOH’s guidelines, NPS and OPS swabs should be taken during the early stages of infection, especially in mild or asymptomatic cases, while lower respiratory specimens such as sputum should be collected later in the course of the disease or in patients with severe symptoms.

Morning saliva is preferred due to its high viral load, but the specimen can be collected at any other time.

“Proper collection procedure should also be strictly observed where patients should not eat, drink, brush their teeth, use mouthwash or smoke for at least 30 minutes before sample collection,” the DOH said.

Ramping up the use of saliva tests is expected to expand the country's testing capacity amid the exponential rise in COVID-19 cases. On April 2, the country logged 15,310 more infections, of which 3,709 are part of case backlogs. Still, the 11,601 confirmed that day became the biggest single-day increase in infections, but it was quickly overtaken by the 12,576 new cases reported on April 3.

As of Tuesday, there are 152,562 active COVID-19 cases or patients currently battling the viral disease.