During the plenary debates for the 2024 budget of the Department of Health (DOH) on Wednesday, November 15, Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, chairperson of the Senate Committee on Health and vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee, emphasized the significance of the agency’s budget for the nation’s post-pandemic recovery.

“I want to underscore the importance of the 2024 budget of the DOH in our path towards recovery,” stressed Go, underscoring that now is a critical time to invest in the healthcare system to meet emerging challenges.

Go inquired about the specifics of DOH’s budget request, to understand the additional funding sought and the prioritization of various health programs. Senator Pia Cayetano, senior vice chairperson of the Senate Committee on Finance, responded that the Senate increased the DOH budget by nearly P50 billion from the proposed P306.13 billion to P353 billion, outlining the extended support for health initiatives.

Go expressed his support for the budget increase, noting his advocacy for enhanced health facilities, especially public hospitals that predominantly serve the underprivileged.

“Mahalaga na patuloy nating i-upgrade ang ating mga pampublikong ospital na karamihan naman ay mahihirap ang pumupunta,” he stated.

Go championed the goal of bringing healthcare closer to the grassroots through the integration of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation’s (PhilHealth) Konsulta package with Super Health Centers, which are designed to focus on primary care, consultation, and early detection, thus bolstering primary healthcare services across the nation.

Cayetano confirmed the enhancement of PhilHealth’s budget to P101 billion, with P21 billion allocated for benefit package improvement, including the Konsulta package.

The senator then turned his attention to the newly passed Regional Specialty Centers Act, probing into the allocation for the establishment of specialty centers in DOH hospitals.

He highlighted the importance of this initiative, saying, “We passed the Regional Specialty Centers Act. P10 billion is already included in the committee report for the implementation of this law. This is a multi-year program, and sana po’y mabigyan ng sapat na pondo para hindi na kailangan pumunta po ng Maynila ang mga pasyente may malubhang sakit sa mga probinsya.”

The Act which Go principally sponsored and is one of the authors in the Senate, aims to decentralize specialized medical services, enabling patients in the provinces to receive advanced medical care without the need to travel to Metro Manila.

An important highlight of Go’s interpellation was the discussion on Malasakit Centers, a cornerstone of his healthcare advocacy. He inquired about the progress and impact of these centers.

“Per last report, seven million na po ang mga pasyenteng natulungan ng Malasakit Centers. Do we have updated figures na po sa ngayon, as of today, ng mga natulungan po ng Malasakit Centers?” asked Go.

DOH responded with updated figures through its sponsor, stating that around 10 million patients have been assisted by Malasakit Centers as of October 2023.

Go stressed the importance of these centers in ensuring that no patient is turned away, especially with the increased budget for the Medical Assistance to Indigent Patients (MAIP) program. He urged for the utilization of this budget for indigent patients, insisting on non-selectivity in providing aid.

“Dapat walang matanggihan na pasyente considering the budget we are allocating for the MAIP Program,” he emphasized.

Furthermore, he recalled the commitment made by DOH Secretary Teodoro Herbosa, Jr., during a Commission on Appointments hearing, where the secretary assured that no patient in need would be denied assistance. A department memorandum issued by Herbosa mandates that all patients at Malasakit Centers must receive the necessary services.

Go likewise brought to light the critical issue of mental health, questioning the coverage and budget allocated for mental health services.

“How much is the current PhilHealth coverage for mental health cases? Do they have outpatient coverage? What is the plan of PhilHealth for the benefit packages for mental health cases and consultation?” he asked.

DOH, through its sponsor, responded, indicating a budget of P4.77 billion for mental health, inclusive of both inpatient and outpatient services and commodities.

Go stressed the importance of continuing to improve mental health programs and ensuring the availability of all forms of psychosocial assistance to Filipinos suffering from mental health issues, especially during times of crisis.

Go also followed up on the release of Health Emergency Allowance (HEA) for healthcare workers. He emphasized the need to ensure that healthcare workers are adequately compensated for their service, especially considering their sacrifices during the pandemic.

Go expressed concern about the delay in releasing funds and allowances, “According to the data na nakuha ko po, nabanggit na rin po kanina, P62 billion po mahigit ang arrears since 2021 na dapat nabayaran po sa ating mga healthcare workers.”

He referred to Republic Act 11712, or the Public Health Emergency Benefits and Allowances for Healthcare Workers Act, which he co-authored and co-sponsored before in the Senate. This Act was a response to the urgent need to support healthcare workers during public health emergencies. The Department of Budget and Management (DBM) has released P23.6 billion from the government’s budget for this year, including P19.6 billion from program appropriations and P4 billion from unprogrammed funds.

Go urged both DOH and DBM to fulfill their obligations and ensure that healthcare workers receive what is due to them. He highlighted the critical role of healthcare workers during the pandemic, some of whom sacrificed their lives or fell ill while serving on the frontlines.

In his closing remarks, Go reiterated his commitment to strengthening the healthcare system. He underscored the importance of allocating additional resources to health, emphasizing, “I continue to push for additional budget for health. Napaka-importante po. The more we should invest sa ating healthcare system.”