Red Cross won't restart COVID-19 testing until PhilHealth debt paid
A doctor shows the Natch RNA Extractor along with other new machines inside the newly inaugurated molecular laboratory of the Philippine Red Cross at the Port Area in Manila in June 2020.
The STAR/KJ Rosales
Red Cross won't restart COVID-19 testing until PhilHealth debt paid
Xave Gregorio ( - October 23, 2020 - 3:43pm

MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte’s promise that the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) will pay up its nearly P1 billion debt to the Philippine Red Cross (PRC) would not be enough for it to resume testing chargeable to the state health insurer.

Sen. Richard “Dick” Gordon, who is also PRC chairman , said in a media briefing on Friday that PhilHealth must first settle its more than P930 million debt with the humanitarian organization in full before they resume screening for the new coronavirus.

“They should pay the whole amount. Because that’s difficult. We’ll be left in the air. They’ll pay in half, leaving a balance of half a billion pesos — what will happen? That amount is going to increase again,” Gordon said partly in Filipino.

He said that the PRC would want to resume the testing, but it does not have enough funds to cover for the purchase of additional testing kits and the salaries of its workers.

He said half of PRC’s medical technicians and half of its staff are no longer reporting to work due to the halt in COVID-19 testing.

“I don’t understand that. They tell us that they have the money. Why don’t you pay us?” Gordon said.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque earlier told CNN Philippines’ “The Source” that the PRC would be paid back at least half of its due debt within the next two weeks and that Duterte’s assurance that the humanitarian organization would be paid back should be enough for it to resume diagnostics.

But PhilHealth has also asked the Department of Justice for a legal opinion on the memorandum of agreement between it and the PRC before it makes a decision on paying the Red Cross.

Three-month low in testing

Several problems have cropped up since the PRC decided to halt tests covered by PhilHealth, among them the stranding of thousands of returning overseas Filipino workers who are still quarantined in hotels and cannot go home without a negative result on a coronavirus test.

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III has said that this has doubled the costs for the government due to the extended stay of returning migrant workers in quarantine hotels.

The stop in testing also led to a three-month low in the country’s daily testing output, with the number of samples processed dropping to just 18,810 on October 18 — the lowest since July 12.

By number of people, 17,177 individuals were tested that day, the lowest since July 12. 

Before it decided to stop tests charged to PhilHealth, the PRC’s 10 labs screened 8,000 to 12,000 samples a day, accounting for 26% to 40% of the daily testing capacity. Now, Gordon said, they are just down to around 1,000 samples a day.

Back in February, ahead of the deadly virus spiraling into a pandemic, the government flaunted the Philippines’ low case tally as a success, only to be proven wrong later on as more testing centers were established and monitoring was improved.

“If we do not test, the disease might come back to haunt us and bite us really, really bad,” Gordon said.

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