Private labs to conduct swab tests for OFWs

In a virtual briefing yesterday, Health Undersecretary Maria Vergeire said the private laboratories have offered to help in addressing the “bottleneck” in swab testing.
Edd Gumban, file

MANILA, Philippines — As the Philippine Red Cross (PRC) is still not providing swab testing services for those who use their Philippine Health Insurance Corp. or PhilHealth cards as payment guarantee, the Department of Health (DOH) reported yesterday that at least seven private laboratories are set to do the tests for returning overseas Filipino workers and other affected sectors.

In a virtual briefing yesterday, Health Undersecretary Maria Vergeire said the private laboratories have offered to help in addressing the “bottleneck” in swab testing.

These laboratories are the Biopath Clinical Diagnostic in Makati, E. Rodriguez and Cebu; AFRIMS; Macacare Medical; First Aide Diagnostic Centre; Detoxicare Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory; Philippine Airport Diagnostic Laboratory, and Lord’s Grace Medical and Industrial Clinic.

Vergeire admitted that the daily number of COVID-19 laboratory tests has been affected after the PRC decided to stop doing these pending the payment of PhilHealth’s debt.

She said the DOH is still determining if the low number of newly reported cases for the past several days is due to PRC’s decision to stop doing swab tests for PhilHealth members. “We are now checking so we can provide an accurate response.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto warned yesterday that the PRC “test holiday” would distort the country’s COVID-19 picture.

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“The absence of PRC deflates the infection rate, making any dip in the reported number of verified cases an artificial decline. If PRC stops testing arriving OFWs, our first line of defense against imported cases is abandoned,” Recto pointed out.

He said PhilHealth should have been proactive in paying PRC for the rendered services as the agency “should always bear in mind that its role is to keep the frontlines supplied, for that is how the war is won.”

“The fight against the pandemic has no room for logistical timeouts which lead to costly delays and preventable deaths,” he stressed.

Recto noted that the PRC’s case is just a recent example of how slow and low disbursement and procurement have snagged government efforts to save lives and livelihood during the pandemic.

“We can only flatten the curve if we first straighten the zigzags in the release of funds and the procurement of goods for which these are intended… We cannot defeat the virus through trickle-down spending, where red tape leads to the slow drip of assistance to the people below,” Recto added.

Navotas Mayor Toby Tiangco also lamented the drop in the city’s swab tests – from 500 to only 100 tests per day – after the PRC stopped processing samples.

In an interview with “The Chiefs” Wednesday night on One News, he said the impasse was a big blow to the city whose residents availed themselves of free swab testing using their PhilHealth cards.

Tiangco admitted that it would be too costly for the city if it covers the P1.7-million expense for 500 tests.

Legal opinion

PhilHealth said it is still waiting for the Department of Justice (DOJ) legal opinion to guide them on how to proceed with its payment to the PRC.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra vowed, though, to give the opinion within the week, saying his office has started reviewing the memorandum of agreement (MOA) between the state health insurer and PRC.

In a Viber message, he told reporters that they would look into the procurement issues as stated in the MOA and determine its validity amid the PRC decision to stop conducting swab tests for PhilHealth.

“The DOJ opinion was requested by PhilHealth before it makes a decision to pay its indebtedness to the Philippine Red Cross. It’s all about the validity of the MOA, more of civil liability,” Guevarra said. – Paolo Romero, Edu Punay, Robertzon Ramirez, Marc Jayson Cayabyab

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