MANILA, Philippines — The House of Representatives has increased the budget for the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines next year to P8 billion.

This was among the institutional amendments worth P20 billion in the proposed national budget for 2021 approved by the chamber’s small committee tasked to consolidate the pre-approved amendments to the General Appropriations Bill prior to submission to the Senate and printing.

Majority Leader Martin Romualdez, head of the 14-member panel, said yesterday that they decided to increase the funding for COVID-19 vaccine purchase from P2.5 billion under the Department of Health (DOH) as proposed by the executive to P8 billion, or by P5.5 billion.

“This is to support President Duterte’s program to strengthen the country’s healthcare system. We believe that vaccine plays a very crucial role in keeping the population safe and healthy from the pandemic,” Romualdez said.

“We are working diligently to fulfill our constitutional duty of ensuring that funding for safe and effective vaccine to control COVID-19 is guaranteed and will be available to Filipinos,” the representative of Leyte and chairman of the House committee on rules said.

Speaker Lord Allan Velasco earlier announced such plan to increase the budget for COVID vaccine purchase.

He said only three percent of the country’s population of more than 100 million could be vaccinated with the original P2.5-billion funding.

“With P2.5 billion, I think that’s just a small number. Definitely, the small committee should add more to that for the vaccine,” the Marinduque congressman said.

The Speaker stressed that President Duterte has made public his wish for the government to inoculate at least 20 million poor Filipinos.

Ways and means committee chairman Joey Salceda, a member of the budget amendments panel, told reporters via Zoom that the decision to increase funding was made during their meeting last Monday.

Salceda said the amendments approved by the panel included the addition of another P2 billion to DOH for facilities enhancement program, P4 billion to the Department of Labor and Employment to help displaced workers, P2 billion to the Department of the Interior and Local Government to fund the purchase of police mobility assets, P2 billion to the Armed Forces of the Philippines for procurement of C-130 planes and P2 billion to the Department of Social Welfare and Development for another round of financial aid to families affected by the pandemic.

The Albay representative also bared additional funding of P1.7 billion for the Department of Education to support internet connectivity of teachers, P500 million for the Energy Regulatory Commission and Philippine National Oil Co. and P300 million for DOH’s mental health program.

Salceda also revealed that the P20 billion would be taken from the unprogrammed funds of the Department of Transportation (DOTr).

“The projects of DOTr are foreign-funded, so we decided to shift the funds into unprogrammed ones. For example, once the machine from Japan arrived, it will just be booked. So in other words, they can still continue their projects because funds will be released,” he explained.

He said the amendments are necessary to “empower the government to confront socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic and restore the Philippines as a nation state to its trajectory of growth, maintain macroeconomic stability and make growth gains sustainable.”

Several senators have questioned the legality of the House’s move to introduce changes in the 2021 GAB after its approval on third and final reading last week.

But House appropriations committee chair Eric Yap said there is nothing wrong with the amendments approved by the plenary when GAB was passed last Oct. 16.

“Since the budget was certified as urgent, after the deliberation on second and third reading we have created a small group to consolidate the amendments introduced by agencies in a day or two. We will the study if they are valid or not and then encode it for five days,” he explained.

“I want to assure everyone that whatever changes we are doing in these amendments, they are agency-initiated amendments,” the ACT-CIS party-list representative emphasized.

In the past, lawmakers were allowed to propose amendments during the period of amendments in the plenary or through a small committee before a bill is approved on third and final reading. This was said to be a source of corruption.

Yap explained that the House has decided to do away with this practice and instead follow the practice of institutional amendments by the Senate.

He said individual amendments by lawmakers may be done during bicameral conference or after the passage of the GAB by the Senate.

Malacañang, meanwhile, said any errata in the 2021 budget approved by the House should only be for typographical errors and not to give space to new items.

“Well, as a finding of fact, we need to establish that the errata really refers to a typographical error. But if it refers to additional items, then I would share the view of the senators, because if it is approved on third and final reading, there should be no changes anymore,” Roque, a former lawmaker, said at a press briefing.

Roque, however, said allegations that some House members had inserted post-approval amendments may not be established if the approved version is not released.

“But then another issue of fact is, what was really approved on third and final reading because unless it is released, we won’t know if there are indeed additional items,” the Palace spokesman said.

Roque noted that the President had vetoed several items in the 2019 budget, most of them line items not included in the original bill approved by the House on final reading. Among the vetoed items were more than P95 billion worth of public works projects that Duterte said were unconstitutional. – Alexis Romero

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