No longer in the red
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - October 26, 2020 - 12:00am

For more than two weeks now, the Philippine Red Cross suspended its laboratory testing services to the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth). Red Cross president and chief executive officer (CEO), Senator Richard “Dick” Gordon though has kept quiet on this issue. Of course, this does not mean the usually voluble Gordon has been unperturbed by the turn of events.

It was understandable because Gordon was preoccupied with his main job at the Senate attending the sessions and the various public hearings via Zoom Webinar and the special sessions on the proposed 2021 budget bill. It was only last week that the 18th Congress started its one-month adjournment.

Now that the lawmakers are in recess, Gordon finally broke his silence in a press conference held at the Subic Freeport in Olongapo City last Friday. Actually, it was four days after no less than President Rodrigo Duterte promised to pay Red Cross the amounts owed by the PhilHealth. President Duterte made this commitment during his public address to the Filipino people after the weekly meeting of the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging and Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID) last Monday night at Malacañang.

At the outset, Gordon admitted he has been trying to stay away from the controversy lest the issue might be turned into a “sabong” (cockfight) between the two parties involved. But Gordon finds it odd that PhilHealth headed by its new president and CEO Dante Gierran “has been foot-dragging” instead of acting expeditiously on the matter despite the President’s official pronouncements.

Gordon let out a mouthful on the “panunuba” by the PhilHealth on the Red Cross. Loosely translated, it means gyp, cheat, double-cross or swindle. With Red Cross out of testing services, he feared, this might affect the government’s campaign to control the spread of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in our country.

It all began when Gierran sought the legal opinion of the Department of Justice (DOJ) on a memorandum agreement entered into by the previous PhilHealth chief on the COVID testing arrangements with the Red Cross. Gierran, an accountant and a lawyer, reportedly questioned why Red Cross – as a non-profit organization – should charge fees while using donated laboratory equipment and test kits for COVID-19.

Gierran cited PhilHealth could be held equally liable for paying these testing fees to Red Cross that receives from the government and private donors cash aids and in-kind donations consisting of COVID test kits, medical laboratory equipment, personal protective equipment for its volunteers and health care workers and laboratory technicians etc. But Gordon twitted Gierran for justifying this move as allegedly the latter’s way of trying “to protect self” when Duterte’s term is over in June 2022.

Is Gierran, or Gordon likewise seeing ghosts too early about the next presidential elections in 2022?

Actually, this issue has been brewing as early as in the middle of August when Gordon first notified the PhilHealth about its failure to settle its bills with Red Cross which stood, at that time, at a whopping P700.5 million. The Red Cross billings represent COVID laboratory services charged to PhilHealth in the COVID-19 swab testing of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) at airports and seaports required by the government upon their return to the Philippines.

The swabbing of OFW returnees are being done by personnel of the Philippine Coast Guard prior to transporting them to designated government facilities in Metro Manila for the mandatory 14-day quarantine stay while waiting for the results of their COVID tests. Then these swab tests are delivered to the molecular laboratories of the Red Cross that uses the reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) – the so-called “gold standard” of COVID-19 testing required by the Department of Health (DOH) as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

As a humanitarian organization, the Red Cross thus charges lesser fees for its COVID testing services compared to private hospitals and laboratories that could range from P6,000 to P7,000 per test. For complete swab test and laboratory, the Red Cross charges P4,000. Without swab test but only laboratory, Red Cross charges P3,500.

The Red Cross does not automatically deduct the PhilHealth subsidy but the patient, in this case the OFW returnee, will initially pay out of pocket and then file for reimbursement from the PhilHealth. That is, if he or she is enrolled as member.

Under the Universal Health Care Law, all Filipinos are supposed to be automatically enrolled as members of PhilHealth. As of Sept. 30 this year, PhilHealth has total enrolment of 94.9 million members out of 110 million estimated total population of the Philippines. Of this total, 3.56 million are OFWs who are direct individual contributors.

Initially, Gordon recalled, PhilHealth made a P100-million cash advance to the Red Cross. After which, he disclosed, the PhilHealth payments came in trickle amounts. So the bills started piling up to that period when PhilHealth suddenly stopped remitting payments. When their bills reached P930 million, the Red Cross suspended their COVID laboratory services to PhilHealth starting Oct. 15.

As of Friday though, Gordon rued, total unpaid bills of PhilHealth to Red Cross now stood at P1.1 billion. Gordon explained they were forced to suspend their swab testing because of the ensuing shortage of test kits and other laboratory supplies they need to replenish. The test kits conforming with WHO standards are all imported, mostly from China, he added.

From what I’ve gathered, Red Cross had collected already as much as P1.6 billion from their swab tests and laboratory fees. It is not as if Red Cross is going bankrupt as a result of this P1.1 billion owed to them by PhilHealth.

With PhilHealth promising to pay their arrears by today, the finances of the Red Cross would no longer operate in the red. Whether PhilHealth pays in full or not, the Red Cross cannot and should not abandon its humanitarian mission.

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