FAIR COMMENT | Alito L. Malinao
For sometime now I have been wondering why the Philippine Red Cross, a purely humanitarian organization, is doing some functions exclusively reserved for the Department of Health (DoH).
The PRC, under an agreement with PhilHealth, had been conducting swab tests primarily for incoming overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). It has been doing an excellent job until PhilHealth failed to remit to the PRC the accrued fees for the testing of over P1 billion.
President Duterte, piqued perhaps by non-stop complaints in the media by PRC chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) Richard Gordon about the delayed payment, blurted out during a Cabinet meeting that PRC is “mukhang pera” or greedy.
New PhilHealth president and CEO Dante Gierran has said that the agency would settle all its financial obligations to the PRC but pointed out some questionable provisions in the memorandum of agreement (MOA) signed by his predecessor Ricardo Morales with the PRC. The MOA provides for a P100 million revolving fund for the COVID-19 testing.
Although the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act allowed PhilHealth to proceed under an emergency negotiated bidding with the Red Cross, Gierran said some procurement laws were still violated. He added that PhilHealth should be charged a lower amount since the cost of each polymerase chain reaction or PCR test has dropped to P3,409 each, from P3,500 stated in the MOA, due to more supply in the market.
Justice Secretary Menandro Guevarra has said that his department would evaluate the validity of the agreement, “but more particularly on procurement issues.”
Indeed, there are some nagging questions on why the government had to hire the PRC in COVID-19 testing instead of giving the PhilHealth money to the DoH and its agencies or accredited hospitals. Certainly, the PRC has no monopoly of expertise in testing COVID-19 patients. What the PRC can do, I think government health facilities can also do.
Since there is a lack of government testing facilities, the PhilHealth money given to the PRC should have been used to open up free testing centers in public hospitals.
Testing in private hospitals would cost from P3,500 to P4,000 which is the same price asked by the Red Cross. It is regrettable that only a few public hospitals have free testing facilities.
Aside from swab testing, the PRC has recently launched its saliva polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or saliva testing.
In a press statement accompanied by a photo of Gordon doing the saliva test, the Red Cross said that the new procedure was 98.23-percent accurate compared with the reverse transcription-PCR swab test, which had a 99-percent accuracy rate.
The PRC said that it can double the number of tests it could process at a cost only of P2,000 compared with nasal swab tests that cost at least P3,800.
According to Gordon, after the PRC conducts the saliva test, they can immediately isolate those who are sick so they can prevent the spread of the virus. Well and good. But why is the Red Cross, and not the DoH, introducing the saliva testing if it is already in the country?
And as far as we know, saliva testing is still on the experimental stage and is still not being used in the United States and other countries.
We hope that Senator Gordon is not using the PRC as a propaganda vehicle for his presidential bid in next year’s election.