Bill allowing LGUs to buy vaccines ‘urgent’

Alexis Romero, Neil Jayson Servallos - The Philippine Star
Bill allowing LGUs to buy vaccines âurgentâ
“As I said, it’s not just certification; it is an appeal to Congress that it is an urgent administration measure which should be passed right away,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said at a press briefing.
AFP / Joel Saget

MANILA, Philippines — Malacañang yesterday described as “urgent” the bill seeking to allow local government units (LGUs) to buy COVID-19 vaccines directly from suppliers.

“As I said, it’s not just certification; it is an appeal to Congress that it is an urgent administration measure which should be passed right away,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said at a press briefing.

Last week, vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. said concerned agencies are now drafting a certification for Duterte to make the measure urgent. If a bill is certified by the President as urgent, it may be passed by Congress on second and third reading on the same day.

Currently, local governments can only buy COVID-19 shots through a tripartite agreement with the national government and suppliers. Roque previously said the procurement law has to be amended to allow local governments to pay in advance.

He has also assured the public that the national government is prepared to buy vaccines for everyone even if some local governments are procuring their own COVID-19 doses.

Despite the delay in the delivery of Pfizer vaccines, the government remains optimistic that the vaccination program would start within the month.

“The timetable will remain. Our timetable is (to inoculate) 50 to 70 million (Filipinos) within the year,” Roque said.

“With regard to Sinovac, we are still hopeful that the delay is only about one week; but in any case, there is a written letter from no less than the COVAX Facility saying that delivery will be in mid-February,” he added.

Roque said vaccines produced by Chinese drug maker Sinovac are expected to arrive on Feb. 23. It is also possible for the Pfizer vaccines purchased through the COVAX facility to arrive before Feb. 23, he added.

“We cannot tell with precision when the vaccines purchased through the COVAX Facility would arrive but for sure, we can start within the month of February. If it’s not Valentines, well belated Kung Hei Fat Choi,” he added, using the Chinese new year greeting.

Asked what is holding up the signing of an actual agreement for the purchase of vaccines, Roque said the term sheet is also a “perfected contract.”

“It is also a perfected contract because the consent, object and consideration are complete... We are just waiting for the contract of sale,” he said.

League of Cities’ appeal

More than a hundred LGUs are asking President Duterte to issue an executive order authorizing the advance payment for COVID-19 vaccines they are set to procure for their residents.

In a resolution dated Feb. 4, 114 member-cities of the League of Cities of the Philippines (LCP) said the advance payments for tripartite agreements they signed for vaccine acquisition are due on Feb. 24.

Citing Presidential Decree 1445, the local executives’ body said “cities need an express authorization and issuance from President Duterte such as an executive order allowing them to procure vaccines and proceed with the required advance payment market provisions in their respective agreements with the pharmaceutical companies.”

“LCP members seek the urgent action of the Office of the President to issue the necessary executive order at the soonest possible time,” the resolution read.

The resolution did not mention which cities were asking for the executive order, but it did say that the cities in question had inked tripartite agreements with AstraZeneca under the A Dose of Hope Program last Jan. 14.

Copies of the resolution have been sent to several offices including the Office of the Executive Secretary, Department of Budget and Management, Commission on Audit, Department of Health, Department of the Interior and Local Government, National Task Force against COVID-19 and the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF).

Tax relief

In their plea, the LGUs have found support from the House committee on ways and means which approved yesterday the tax provision of a bill that seeks to authorize them to directly purchase COVID-19 vaccines from pharmaceutical companies.

The panel stamped its approval on Section 6 of House Bill 8648 (Emergency Vaccine Procurement Act of 2021) that provides tax exemptions for the procurement, importation, storage, transport, distribution and administration of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines by LGUs.

These vaccines would be exempted from customs duties, value-added tax, excise tax and other fees, provided the shots to be acquired by LGUs “shall only be used for their residents and constituents and not for commercial distribution.”

Last week, the panel headed by Albay Rep. Joey Salceda also approved HB 8648, which generally seeks to expedite the purchase and administration of vaccines by allowing LGUs to directly purchase from foreign manufacturers.

Speaker Lord Allan Velasco, who authored the bill, said this mechanism would ensure that vaccines are “procured and administered in an expeditious, effective, efficient and equitable manner.”

“The next crucible in the fight against the pandemic is the speedy procurement and effective administration of vaccines against the deadly disease,” the Marinduque congressman said.

“Time is of the essence. Each day of delay is very costly for the government and leaves many of our vulnerable countrymen exposed to the dangers of this disease.”

Camarines Sur Rep. LRay Villafuerte called on officials of the vaccination program to focus on fast-tracking the training of personnel at the LGU level in the proper storage, handling and administration of the temperature-sensitive vaccine doses.

“In CamSur, we already have a list of the priority beneficiaries across the province as well as the list of frontliners who are to administer the vaccines,” Villafuerte said.

He said this will avoid wastage and keep the government on track in its target of immunizing 70 million Filipino adults by yearend.

“Our frontliners need to be properly trained on how to administer the shots. LGU staff should also be trained on the proper storage of the meds. Another thing is that there are certain municipalities that have no adequate cold storage facilities to keep the vaccines,” he pointed out.

“Based on reports, the government plans to start the vaccination program once the vaccines from the COVAX Facility arrive. Frontline health care workers caring for patients in high-risk areas will be given top priority in the initial rollout,” the Bicolano congressman said.

Pfizer doses for 34 hospitals

Thirty-four hospitals will receive the initial batch of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines that the Philippines will acquire through the COVAX Facility, the DOH said yesterday.

Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said 32 of the hospitals “eligible to receive the vaccines” are in the National Capital Region and two are in Davao and in Cebu.

“We had a meeting with them last Friday,” she told a press conference. These hospitals will receive initially 117,000 doses that are expected to arrive this month from the COVAX Facility of the World Health Organization.

These doses will primarily be given to medical and non-medical workers in these hospitals.

Vergeire added the hospitals were directed to submit to DOH their “verified list of vaccinees plus their quick substitution list (QSL).”

“As of today, most of our hospitals were already able to submit their complete lists. There are just some hospitals that are still completing their QSLs,” she said.

One of the hospitals that will receive the vaccines is the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) which is readying its QSL to prevent vaccine wastage.

PGH director Gerardo Legaspi said the vaccination program got “overwhelming support” from some 6,000 PGH workers, as 94 percent of them have signed up to be inoculated.

This is higher than the 74 percent acceptance rate posted by the workers in a survey done a month ago.

Legaspi admitted the increase in vaccine confidence can be due to the knowledge that the vaccine that will arrive first in the country is from Pfizer.

However, the delivery of the Pfizer vaccines has been delayed from the initial target of Feb. 15.

He added there are enough alternative vaccinees in case some of those who registered back out.

Vergeire said the one-week delay in the delivery of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccines has given the government enough time to fine-tune the vaccine rollout. – Delon Porcalla, Sheila Crisostomo, Rudy Santos

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