House ‘shepherds’ PH to emerge stronger from pandemic

The House of Representatives has carried the duty of crafting policies to shepherd the Philippines towards recovery from the ravaging Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaker Lord Allan Velasco said the House’s legislative work has been vital to the country’s pandemic response, considering that its success lies in the policy choices of governments.

Velasco said the lower chamber ensured the passage of vital pieces of legislation that would help the country navigate through and emerge stronger from the pandemic.

“In 2020, we struggled to cope at the onset of the pandemic. In 2021, we began to rise and rebuild as a nation. We instituted reforms, revised plans, and implemented programs to ensure the health and safety of everyone as we keep the legislative mill running. We refused to be defined by hardship and loss,” he said.

Velasco particularly highlighted the timely enactment of the PHP5.024-trillion budget for 2022, which would be Congress’ “single greatest opportunity” to shape the country’s priorities for next year as the pandemic lingers on.

“This budget offers hope, opportunity and economic security for our kababayans as we tread on the path to recovery in 2022,” Velasco said.

The 2022 budget is guided by a strategy supported by three main pillars, namely: Building Resilience amidst the Pandemic; Sustaining the Momentum towards Recovery; and Continuing the Legacy of Infrastructure Development.

“The 2022 GAA (General Appropriations Act) includes a host of spending initiatives that will help sustain our efforts to beat Covid-19. It provides funding for the benefits and compensation of health care workers, procurement of coronavirus booster shots, emergency hiring of medical front-liners, and other programs aimed to fight the effects of the pandemic,” he said.

Next year’s budget is 11.5 percent higher than this year’s PHP4.506 trillion.

Another signed law is the extension of the availability of the 2021 national budget until December next year, so as to allow the agencies to fully utilize the allocations to implement government programs and projects and to ensure that the intended beneficiaries of these basic services are reached.

House Appropriations Committee chair Eric Go Yap said the 2021 national budget would strengthen the country’s response against the pandemic, as well as boost economic recovery.

“The GAA of 2021 centers on the philosophy that more than our priorities for a responsive and dynamic governance, the focus of our resources shall also be directed to the most urgent priority – to reset our momentum and action, rebound from the devastating effects of the pandemic on the health and economy and fully recover from current and continuing impacts of the crisis,” Yap said.

Velasco believes that both the 2021 and 2022 national budgets are the most important policy instruments of the government as the country begins to “navigate a path to recovery from the Covid-19 crisis next year”.

He said the 18th Congress has done its part in facilitating the fast and efficient rollout of the life-saving vaccines with the enactment of the Covid-19 Vaccination Program Act of 2021, which establishes a vaccine indemnity fund and expedites the purchase of Covid-19 vaccines.

The law tasks the Department of Health and the National Task Force Against Covid-19 to supervise the negotiated purchase of Covid-19 vaccines, as well as the needed supplies and services for their storage, transport, and distribution.

It also authorizes local government units (LGUs) to procure Covid-19 vaccines and needed supplies and services.

Aside from the spending plan for next year, the House also worked on crucial measures to help cushion the socioeconomic impact of the ongoing public health crisis, and strengthen its fight against the pandemic.

Based on the chamber’s recent legislative data, the House approved 133 Republic Acts, 930 measures on third reading, and adopted 266 resolutions.

“This is our harvest of legislation for 2021 so far,” Velasco said.

This includes the third reading approval of the Bayanihan to Arise as One bill (Bayanihan 3) that will provide more aid to Filipinos amid the Covid-19 pandemic with a proposed stimulus package amounting to PHP401 billion.

Two rounds of financial aid worth PHP1,000 shall be granted to each Filipino.

The cash subsidy program shall have a total funding of PHP216 billion.

Furthermore, pandemic-affected households shall receive a one-time cash subsidy worth PHP5,000 to PHP10,000 to be implemented by the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

The chamber also approved on final reading two measures seeking to establish a virology research institute and a center for disease control, both of which have been identified as priority measures by President Rodrigo Duterte in his final State-of-the-Nation Address.

Other House-approved bills that would help the country in its fight against Covid-19 include a measure exempting critical medical supplies, including medical oxygen, from any and all taxes during public health emergencies; a measure that would define the tax rates for proprietary schools to allow them to avail of the 10-percent preferential rate on taxable income; and a measure establishing the electronic health or eHealth system in the country, among others.

Inquiries into the procurement of Covid-19 supplies, OCTA projections

Aside from keeping the legislative mill running, the House also did its other duty of oversight, particularly on the actions of the executive department in handling the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the more notable ones is the inquiry of the House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability on the procurement of alleged overpriced Covid-19 supplies.

During its hearings, the committee has ruled out the issue of overpricing, as it was already clarified by Commission on Audit chairman Michael Aguinaldo that there was no incident of overpricing, but instead, the flagging in its report was due to inventory management through the transfer of funds.

Aguinaldo said the observations made in the report pertained more to the inventory management of the Procurement Service-Department of Budget Management (PS-DBM) and does not say anything on the alleged overpricing of the medical supplies.

COA has flagged the DOH for transferring PHP42.4 billion worth of funds to PS-DBM for the procurement of Covid-19 supplies.

The PS-DBM awarded Pharmally Pharmaceuticals Corporation contracts worth PHP8.68 billion for the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing kits, which were believed to be overpriced, at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic last year.

Aguinaldo said the process of emergency procurement is consistent with existing laws such as Republic Act 9184 or the Government Procurement Reform Act, Government Procurement Policy Board issuances (GPPB), and other further of RA 11469 of Bayanihan to Heal As One Act.

“Under the law, Bayanihan 1, the President was authorized to procure expeditiously as an exemption from [RA] 9184 and related laws. But nonetheless, the DBM, and I’m guessing the Office of the President as well, agreed to apply the rules on emergency procurement with perhaps little modifications, which is reflected in the GPPB circular 01-2020,” Aguinaldo said.

The same committee also conducted a congressional investigation into the qualifications, research methodologies, partnerships, and composition of OCTA Research, an independent research group monitoring the pandemic in the country.

House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability chair Michael Aglipay said the pronouncements of OCTA can give the Filipino people either “hope or fear” with the research group’s heightened attention from the media.

“With great power comes great responsibility. There is a need to be more discerning and judicious in using research analysis of experts and scientists. Our methodologies must be effective and accurate,” he said.

Aglipay said the interpretation must be based on truthful data and not exaggerations to incite panic and fear.

He said the committee conducted the hearing not to “censor or abridge the right to freedom of speech”, but to demand accountability and truthfulness.

“Private research institutions and government agencies must come together and act in unison, in fighting the deadly virus. We must avoid making public commentaries that are subjective in nature — let the science and numbers speak for themselves,” he said.

A steadfast, committed House in 2022

For next year, Velasco assured that the House of Representatives will continue to pass vital measures that will help the country in its fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Rest assured that we in the House of Representatives will remain steadfast and resolute in enacting vital pieces of legislation that will help the country navigate through and emerge stronger from this pandemic,” Velasco said.

The House leader likewise rallied his fellow legislators to remain steadfast and committed in 2022, which he described as “a crucial year for our country.”

“Let us build on our accomplishments and let us face 2022 with defiant hope. Magkaisa po tayo sa pag-asa, sa pagbangon, at sa pagbubunyi (Let us all be united in hoping, rising, and celebrating),” Velasco said.

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