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Nationwide round-up (01/04/21)

House health panel to prioritize proposals on PhilHealth contribution hike deferment

THE HOUSE of Representatives committee on health will prioritize proposals to defer the scheduled hike in member contributions to the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth), the panel’s chairperson said on Monday.

Quezon Rep. Angelina Helen D. Tan, committee chair, assured that the proposals to defer the increase in premium contributions would be given “utmost priority and cautious consideration.”

Republic Act No. 11223, or the Universal Health Care Act, mandates a 0.5% increase in premium contributions every year, starting 2021 until it reaches the 5% limit in 2025.

The premium rate for this year will increase to 3.5% of members’ monthly basic salary from 3% last year, raising minimum contribution to P350 from the current P300.

“The increase in premiums will without doubt be an added burden to the public, many of whom are still reeling from the devastating effects of COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) to their finances and livelihood,” Ms. Tan said in a statement.

On the other hand, she said, the proposed deferment will definitely spell a great setback in the government’s efforts “to bring health care to all Filipinos” through the implementation of the universal health care program.

“Membership contributions for 2021 should be thoroughly studied right away in light of the pros and cons of the matter.”

Another House member is urging the state insurer to consider a six-month suspension of the increase in premium contributions.

Party-list Rep. Michael T. Defensor said PhilHealth members deserve a temporary reprieve from the increase amid a “fortuitous event” such as the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic. Even private pre-need companies are declaring a ‘fortuitous event’ to justify delays in the payment of their contractual obligations to thousands of planholders,” Mr. Defensor, who co-chairs the House committee on health, said in a statement.

Congress, if needed, should pass a joint resolution calling for the six-month deferment of the increase in premium contributions, he added.

Mr. Defensor noted that PhilHealth’s reserve fund stood at P110 billion as of March 2020.

“In an extreme situation wherein claims and administrative expenses might exceed contribution collections due to the pandemic, PhilHealth can always dip into its Investment Reserve Fund and the earnings thereof,” Mr. Defensor said.

PhilHealth has been tarnished with corruption allegations. Its former president and chief executive officer, Ricardo C. Morales, along with other officials are now facing graft charges before the Office of the Ombudsman over the alleged anomalous release of P2.7 billion worth of Interim Reimbursement Mechanism funds. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza

2 Chinese pharmaceutical firms to apply for vaccine emergency use

TWO Chinese pharmaceutical firms will apply for an emergency use approval of their respective coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccines from the local Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week, according to the Philippine envoy to China.

Ambassador Jose Santiago L. Sta. Romana, in a briefing on Monday, said the companies — China National Pharmaceutical Group Corp. (Sinopharm) and Sinovac Biotech (Sinovac) — are currently in talks with the national COVID-19 task force regarding the vaccine emergency use authorization (EUA).

“Apparently, their plan right now, according to them is that they hope to file in the next few days sometime this week. They will file their EUA application with the FDA in the Philippines,” he said.

Last week, the FDA said American firm Pfizer, Inc. applied for an EUA.

With an EUA, the approval period of a COVID-19 treatment drug or vaccine will be reduced to 21 to 28 days from the usual six months. — Gillian M. Cortez

Senate hearing on vaccine to focus on immunization program

THE SENATE committee of the whole hearing next week will zero in on the government’s immunization program against the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), rather than issues on the “smuggled” vaccines, a senate leader said.

“The original question of the hearing is ‘Bakit wala pa tayong Vaccine? Kailan at paanong idi-distribute at paano storage?’ (Why don’t we have vaccines yet, and how will the distribution and storage be handled),” Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III told reporters over phone message on Monday.

The controversy over allegedly smuggled vaccines injected to members of the Presidential Security Group (PSG) might be taken up another time, he said.

Mr. Sotto also said he will first consult the other senators on whether to invite PSG Commander Jesus P. Durante III to the hearing set for Jan. 11.

Mr. Durante had admitted procuring the unregistered vaccines for COVID-19 that was inoculated to PSG personnel and some Cabinet officials.

The local Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to authorize any COVID-19 vaccine for use in the country.

The government has allocated P2.5 billion for vaccines under the Department of Health’s 2021 budget and P70 billion more in unprogrammed funds.

There is also some P10-billion standby fund provided by the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act (Bayanihan II) under Republic Act No. 11494. This may be tapped if the President signs into law the bill extending the Bayanihan II, which expired on Dec. 19. — Charmaine A. Tadalan

Solon calls for stimulus on private sector investment in natural gas terminals

A LAWMAKER on Monday said the government must find ways to encourage private companies to build liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals, which will serve as replacement to the Malampaya deep water gas-to-power project with its reserves expected to start declining in three years.

“The output of the (Malampaya project’s) gas will start going down by 2024. The direction of the Department of Energy (DoE) is to encourage the private sector to build receiving terminals for imported liquefied natural gas,” Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian, who chairs the Senate committee on energy, said in a press release.

Mr. Gatchalian said while the country has yet to discover new sources of gas, it “would have to resort” to importing LNG to ensure the operations of the five gas-fired plants that generate over 3,200 megawatts (MW) of power in Luzon, the senator said.

BusinessWorld sought DoE for comment but has yet to receive a reply as of press time.   

The Senate is scheduled on Tuesday to deliberate on Senate Bill No. 1819 or the Midstream Natural Gas Industry Development Act, which aims to develop the sector.

Based on DoE’s 2019 data, the Malampaya project fuels the five gas-fired power plants that take up 20% of Luzon grid’s installed capacity. The offshore project also served more than half of utility giant Manila Electric Co.’s (Meralco’s) power demand.

Four years ago, the Energy agency issued a circular that outlined the rules for players in the downstream natural gas industry.

But Mr. Gatchalian said this issuance needs a complementary law that will cover all aspects of the midstream natural gas industry, including transport, transmission, storage, and marketing of natural gas in its original or liquefied form. — Angelica Y. Yang

NBI to investigate selling of sexual photos and videos by students to raise funds

THE DEPARTMENT of Justice (DoJ) ordered the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to probe the reported selling of sexual photos and videos by students purportedly to raise money for online classes.

Under Department Order No. 001 dated Jan. 4, Justice Secretary Menardo I. Guevarra directed the state agents to investigate the “alleged proliferation of trafficking in persons and online sexual exploitation of children,” particularly the selling done by students.

The NBI was also told to file charges against all persons involved if evidence warrants.

Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian, in a statement on Sunday, urged the Justice department’s Office of Cybercrime and the police Anti-Cybercrime Group to probe the reports on “Christmas sale” of sensual photos and videos to pay for expenses relating to distance learning.

Mr. Gatchalian said he has filed Senate Bill No. 1794, which proposes that regional trial courts can authorize law enforcers to conduct surveillance and record communications and information of persons charged or suspected involved in child trafficking.

The proposed law also mandates internet service providers to block and filter any access to child pornography.

Mr. Guevarra on Sunday said he welcomes the enactment of a law that would “strengthen the legal framework for the government’s campaign against human trafficking in cyberspace, particularly online sexual exploitation of children and minors.”

“As we await the passage of this legislation, the DoJ, through its Office of Cybercrime, and the NBI’s cybercrime division, will intensify its efforts to crack down on cybercrimes and all forms of human trafficking through the internet, which are expected to rise during these times of limited physical movement and interaction,” he told reporters via Viber.

The DoJ earlier said reported online exploitation of children from March to May 2020 rose to 279,166 cases, a 264.63% rise from the same period the previous year. — Vann Marlo M. Villegas

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