THE P1-billion cut in the Reproductive Health budget, specifically for Family Health and Responsible Parenting, was not in the least surprising. Because for all of government’s press releases about transparency and matuwid na daan, the budget and the decisions that are made about where and how to spend public money remain shrouded in secrecy. Just because documents are made available to us does not mean everything’s happening above ground. And when transparency means going through long lists of line-item budgeting and reams of paper, it’s easy to see how government can take every opportunity to slip one past us.
Case in point, this cut in the RH budget.
Round 1: Senators Cayetano, Santiago versus Legarda
Senator Pia Cayetano was visibly incensed by the fact of the RH budget being decreased by P1 billion pesos. She said the changes were made without consulting with the bicam, and that it was obviously deliberate. She said she couldn’t trust Senator Loren Legarda, head of the Senate Committee on Finance, anymore.
Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago was “appalled” by the budget cut. “This abandonment is immoral in a country where some 200 out of 100,000 women who give birth die. It is irreconcilable that Congress, which enacted the RH Law after much hardship in 2012, would three years later render that same law inutile.” (GMA News Online, 8 January 2016)
But Legarda was quick to spin it: it’s not true that there will be no budget for contraceptives: “The 2016 budget for FHRP (Family Health and Responsible Parenting) was reduced by P1 billion, but the budget for the procurement of contraceptives is not zero. There remains 1.6 billion pesos that can be used for this.” (Reuters, 12 January)
According to Legarda, the DOH also has enough contraceptives “bought in the last quarter of 2015 to last until mid-2016, and the DOH has budget funds left over from 2015 for its reproductive health program.” (Reuters, 12 January)
Used to augment the Department of National Defense (DND) budget, Legarda based the decision to cut the RH fund by P1 billion on the fact that as of June 2015, the DOH still had yet to spend P2.3 billion pesos of its P3.27 billion allocation. To Legarda between the DOH’s unused 2015 budget and the current budget, there should be enough to fulfill the the RH Law’s requirements. (GMA News Online, 8 January 2016)
Round 2: mainstream media and the question of savings
When Senator Legarda was being interviewed by Davila and Vic Lima on their TV show late this week, they accepted without hesitation, and with nary a sense of disbelief – or context for that matter – the senator’s response about why the P1-billion-peso allocation was moved from the DOH to the DND. The same might be said of all of mainstream media that has carried Senator Legarda’s response: the DOH has savings from 2015, so they can just use that for 2016.
Legarda rationalizes the cut further: if the trend of DOH savings continues, then “<…> possible savings of DOH-OSEC for 2015 could be P8.8 billion, which is more than enough to cover the P1 billion decrease.” (GMA News Online, 12 January)
The follow-up question from the esteemed members of mainstream media should have been something like: aren’t unspent funds supposed to go back to the national treasury? To which Legarda would have a ready answer: “These unused obligations or savings can be realigned within the agency as long as approved by the President.” <emphasis mine> (GMA News Online, 12 January)
To which we might ask: how would the President approve something that even the DOH secretary says is not as certain as Legarda says it is? In fact, Legarda was talking about what DOH had spent of its allocations as of June 2015, and Garin would be correct when she replied that this cannot be the basis of how much they might have already spent by the end of the year.
Or is this to say that when it was discussed that the DOH would lose P1-billion pesos of its funds allocated for family planning, that amongst the Finance committee heads and the DBM and whoever else is operating on matuwid na daan, that someone spoke for the President and said, he would approve something he had yet to even see?
Either way, what would’ve made for a more interesting line of questioning would’ve been how this happened, especially since the Senators and Congressmen and women are as surprised as the rest of us, making it look like such a calculated move on the part of the powers-that-be. That Garin would release the information was obviously not part of this plan.
That she did, well, we must thank heavens that we can now wonder: what other funds were taken from one allocation and moved to another, without consultations, without transparency?
Against matuwid na daan: why are there savings?!?
The other question, the more basic one, has everything to do with those savings. And it’s really just to wonder: why. Why are there savings to speak of when one lives in a country that continues to be impoverished, that cradles people who remain in dire need of basic services?
We can just focus on health. Why has this government pushed for the privatization of 20 government hospitals (Manila Bulletin, 13 Mar 2014), and why has 72 DOH-operated hospitals been made to shift to privatization via public-private partnerships (PPPs)? (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 11 June 2015)
Why are we seeking to privatize our public hospitals – purportedly to “save” it from utter ruin – when there are billions in savings to actually make these hospitals a public service?
The President had said: his government would rather focus on preventive health care so citizens don’t need to go into tertiary care. (Manila Bulletin, 13 Mar 2014) But how can this happen when there is so much in savings that should be going to making sure the nation is healthy?
Why have we become one of the countries with the “fastest growing HIV epidemics,” with 22 new cases of HIV infection reported everyday? (WHO, 1 Dec 2015) And why can PhilHealth only provide HIV patients with P30,000 pesos a month for their treatment, an amount that cannot be enough?
The WHO assessment of the state of health in the Philippines for 2015 talks about the high incidence of key communicable diseases in the country, with 13 of the 17 WHO recognized neglected tropical diseases remaining endemic. The rate of non-communicable diseases and high prevalence of all risk factors are rising as well. (WHO May 2015 data)
30% of children under-five years of age are stunted. In Mindanao, child mortality is 4 to 5 times higher than in Manila. Neonatal mortality account for 50% of all under-five deaths. The country missed the regional measles elimination and Hepatitis B control target. Tuberculosis management remains a big challenge. (WHO May 2015 data)
Medicine prices in the Philippines remain some of the highest in Asia, and the Philippines is the least likely to attain millennium development goals for health, as per the World Health Organization. (May 2015)
DOH had savings in 2012 of P5.46 billion. In 2013, it was P7.578 billion. In 2014, it was P9.2 billion. Senator Legarda asserts that given this trend, savings for 2015 would be at an estimated P8.8 billion.
The question is why.
In 2011, when the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) was being made operational (unbeknownst to the rest of us), and savings were being celebrated, Senator Edgardo Angara had said in a press release:
“Why are we hoarding so much public money? Money unspent, is money useless –a useless asset when there is so much urgent necessary infrastructure and public works crying out for prosecution and implementation.” (PCIJ, 20 July 2014)
Welcome to matuwid na daan.