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Buffalo bust

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The unassuming carabaos quietly go about their roles in the rice fields at the countryside as the coronavirus pandemic hobble economic activities in cities and urban centers. Some produce fresh milk, though most help farmers prepare hectares upon hectares of land for the planting of rice. After all, these animals are not known as beasts of burden for nothing.

For carabao handlers and following provincial tradition, however, water buffalos have other purposes outside of tilling soil. They can pull carts and loads, serve as carriage for people and join parades in fiestas, like the Carabao Festival every May. Side by side this thanksgiving festival for a bountiful rice harvest and a tribute to the patron saint of farmers, San Isidro Labrador, the buffalos figure in spectacular races.

With the community quarantine banning Central Luzon’s post-harvest fiesta and preventing mass gatherings to avoid infection from COVID-19, carabao races were sidelined. Or so it seemed.
For six foreign-bred carabaos and their handlers, the show must go on. On Sunday morning, six rumbled in an open field in Barangay Taal in Pulilan, Bulacan, pulling “chariots” with “jockeys.”

The scene was a contest of the fastest buffalo, with the winner taking home cash bets of an undetermined amount.

However, the general community quarantine bans mass gatherings and disregard for social distancing. Illegal gambling also remains outlawed. Thus, the illegal race was reported to the local police, who dispatched a team that busted the organizers. Fifteen suspects, including six minors, were arrested. Cash related to the gambling, six carabaos, carts and two improvised tasers were also seized.

As far as the animals are concerned, the race is brutal. Forcing them to run by whipping no longer applies. Instead, they are electrically shocked using the improvised taser. The more painful the shock, the faster they go, and the higher the chances of winning the race.

With their tormentors arrested, the buffalos hope to avenge their torture.

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House gun duel over funds?

Aldrin Cardona

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From almost coming to blows to the same pair of lawmakers agreeing to a gun duel, incidents of congressmen letting off their steam through Viber exchanges have exposed how low the House of Representatives becomes when its members fight over money.

It’s no paltry reason that more than P10 billion with Special Allotment Release Order (SARO) for projects in the congressional districts of Taguig and Camarines Sur are being questioned by several lawmakers. They would like to know why some are getting more while the rest have far less.

They’re for this year. But there’s more where these monies are coming from.

The exchanges are now being viewed as a preview of what now appears as a botched term-sharing deal between House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco.

Lion’s share
Cayetano’s district in Taguig as well as his wife Lani Cayetano’s (yes, they split Taguig City’s two districts using separate addresses and voting precincts) have also allegedly received P8-billion from the Department of Public Works and Highways’ (DPWH) budget for next year.

Another P11.8 billion in infrastructure funds will go to Camarines Sur.

The province is divided into two legislative districts.

District 2 is represented by Cayetano ally Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund “LRay” Villafuerte.

District 1 has Cayetano as its “caretaker congressman” following the death of Marissa Lourdes M. Andaya on 5 July this year due to cancer.

The amounts were first disclosed by Negros Oriental 3rd District Representative Arnolfo “Arnie” Teves Jr. during House hearing on the DPWH 2021 budget on Thursday.

Teves is a member of the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), President Rodrigo Duterte’s party when he sought the presidency in 2016, and whose members belong to the bloc supporting Velasco.

The Marinduque lawmaker is set to take his turn — for 21 months until 2022 — in the term-sharing deal concocted no less by Cayetano, who had agreed to serve 15 months as House Speaker which is supposed to end in October.

Party favors
Cayetano, sources say, is reneging on this agreement.

This has sent many lawmakers up in arms. This issue about the inequitable distribution of funds makes the congressmen seethe even more.

Cayetano is also acknowledged as a key member of the Nacionalista Party (NP), to which Villafuerte belongs. The NP is led by the power couple Manny and Senator Cynthia Villar, parents of DPWH Secretary Mark Villar whose agency is responsible for the funds’ release to Cayetano and Villafuerte.

The P10 billion was the DPWH fund surrendered to the Office of the President supposedly for the COVID-19 fight. The OP had returned the money to the agency, but it has become a discretionary fund that was reportedly easier to manipulate.

The agency has control over this lump sum after that.

Teves’ claim percolated the House’s Viber group with many lawmakers now questioning the House leadership.

But several Tribune sources claimed it had started way back when one of their peers — a Cayetano ally — challenged a Velasco supporter (a senior member of the House) to a gun duel to settle their issues.

It was the second time for them to figure in near physical altercation after the same pair nearly came to blows last year during talks on appropriations.

Most congressional districts are receiving just P2-billion worth of projects, with some even less.

Total allocation for the Visayas bloc, meanwhile, is only eight percent of the 2021 budget.

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ADB leads war vs COVID

Joshua Lao

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The Asian region should take on the health crisis caused by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) as a collective which the Asian Development Bank (ADB) will spearhead through the forming of a regional hub that will coordinate the anti-virus campaigns and the recovery efforts once the pandemic ends.

The Asian center will primarily promote knowledge sharing and strengthening cooperation on tax policy and administration to improve domestic resource mobilization.

ADB president Masatsugu Asakawa said in an address in yesterday’s 53rd annual meeting of the Board of Governors that the center is one of its commitments to developing economies to meet their recovery goals.

“ADB will continue to earn your trust as a steadfast partner during the uncertain times we still face in our region as we build a strong and lasting recovery,” Asakawa said.

As the region moves forward toward recovery, Asakawa said ADB will build on its relationship with its members to provide support in key areas.

ADB will also support efforts of developing countries to secure safe and effective vaccines and to formulate strategies for their equitable delivery, according to Asakawa. “To accomplish this, ADB will continue to strengthen collaboration with the World Health Organization, the World Bank, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, vaccine experts and pharmaceutical companies.

New global order
ADB said it will also promote regional cooperation and integration to help members seize the opportunity from renewed globalization in a post-pandemic new normal.

“While there are some who suggest that recent border closures and travel restrictions are signs that globalization has ground irreversibly to a halt, I do believe that globalization will return, but it will take a different shape,” Asakawa said.

ADB will work with developing nations to secure more diversified value and supply chains, and to promote regional public goods for better collective prevention of disease outbreaks, mitigation of climate change impacts and enhancement of regional financial safety net.

COVID-19, according to ADB, has contributed to an increase in income inequality and absolute poverty which can be addressed through investments in health, education and social protection.

ADB said a balance should be found in ensuring safety and opportunities for all while building the human capital that economies needed to thrive in the long term.

ADB will accelerate efforts to tackle climate change to reach the goals established in its long-term Strategy 2030, to reach $80 billion in cumulative climate investments and 75 percent of the total number of committed operations by 2030.

ADB will invest in information technology and data for health, education, financing for micro, small, and medium enterprises and remote work, while also addressing both the digital divide and cyber security.

Pandemic package
ADB announced last April, a $20 billion package to help developing members confront challenges from the pandemic.

The assistance included rapid emergency grants and technical aid to help governments meet urgent medical needs; a new COVID-19 Pandemic Response Option (CPRO), which is supporting countercyclical expenditure programs and assistance for the private sector.

ADB has so far committed about $11.2 billion in aid to fight the pandemic. Working closely with development partners, ADB said it has also mobilized about $7.2 billion in cofinancing.

Even prior to the pandemic, many economies did not achieve a minimum tax yield of 15 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), which is a level now widely regarded as the minimum required for sustainable development.

In response, Department of Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III said by 2019, bold reforms in tax policy and administration raised the revenues to GDP ratio to 16.1 percent in 2019, which is the highest in more than two decades.

“In the same year, we brought down our debt-to-GDP ratio to a historic low of 39.6 percent,” he added.

This strong fiscal position gave us the headroom needed to reallocate budget items and quickly access emergency financing to fight the pandemic, Dominguez noted.

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Moored mariners may spark crisis

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In the offing is a global humanitarian crisis due to the slew of seamen, 25 percent of whom are Filipinos, stranded at sea since the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic struck early this year, United Nation (UN) agencies warned yesterday.

International Labor Organization (ILO) led a call for governments to send immediate help to seafarers left stranded as a result of health restrictions to control the spread of the pathogen.

Based on global figures, seafarers currently number at about 1.5 million, 378,000 of them are Filipinos.

Several cruise liners are anchored near the shore in Manila now for months since many of their crew are Filipinos who are being processed by the government for disembarkation.

In a joint statement, the ILO, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Maritime Organization, the International Organization for Migration, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development called on member states to establish and implement measurable, time-bound plans to increase the rate of crew changes.

The ILO and other UN agencies have emphasized that governments should eliminate without delay all obstacles to crew changes.

Effect global-scale
“It is a humanitarian issue. It is a safety issue. It is also an economic issue which could slow or stop trade and hinder economic recovery. Governments must act now,” ILO director general Guy Ryder said.

The multilateral groups maintained that despite their efforts and those of shipowners and seafarers’ organizations, more than 300,000 individuals remain trapped on vessels while another 300,000 are waiting ashore to replace them.

Those who failed to embark on ships also face financial difficulties, according to the groups. Fishermen also face a similar problem, they added.

Restrictions on travel, embarkation and disembarkation in ports; quarantine measures; reductions in available flights and limits on the issuing of visas and passports have converged to create the crisis.

Huge sacrifices
“This is a problem that affects not only shipowners and seafarers but all aspects of governance and society,” Ryder said.

The joint call to action recognizes the sacrifices that seafarers have made to keep trade moving and therefore to ensure the continuity of global supply chains.

The statement also sets out a list of immediate actions that governments must take, including designating seafarers as key workers, increasing their access to commercial flights, implementing protocols for safe crew changes, refraining from authorizing the extension of seafarers’ employment agreements beyond the maximum 11 months, in accordance with the Maritime Labor Convention 2006 as amended, facilitating diversions of ships to ports where crew changes can take place and reviewing the necessity for national or local restrictions.

Crew change goes on
Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation (DoTr) said crew change operations in the port of Capinpin in Bataan, Manila Bay and Subic Bay Freeport, Zambales continue with 142 seafarers served.

The 142 seafarers received their swab test results in 22 hours, all of which yielded negative results.

These crew change hubs were activated by the DoTr in August and started its operations this month.

Other ports with pending applications as a crew change hub include the Port of Batangas, Port of Cebu and Port of Davao.

Manning agencies’ chartering of flights and the government’s effort to repatriate both land-based and sea-based overseas Filipino workers also sped up the shifts.

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Palace won’t back down from EU

MJ Blancaflor

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Malacañang dared on Friday the European Union’s lawmaking body to revoke tariff privileges given to local goods as a supposed penalty for what EU legislators termed as deteriorating rights situation in the country.

Filipinos are ready to suffer another blow on the economy since it has already hit “rock bottom,” according to Presidential spokesman Harry Roque.

European lawmakers had sought to revoke the Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) — which provides duty-free entry of 6,200 local products to EU — over alleged human rights violations in the country.

In a news briefing, an incensed Roque dared the EU to push through with its economic sanctions even as the country continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic which plunged the economy into a recession which was the worst in three decades.

“If they want to add to the burden of the Filipino nation during this pandemic, so be it. We will accept that as history repeating itself. Let’s stop these discussions,” Roque said.

In a resolution dated 17 September, the legislative assembly called on the European Commission to initiate the procedure that could lead to the temporary withdrawal of GSP+ advantages if Philippine authorities fail to explain alleged breaches on rights and press freedom.

The body also expressed concern over the “deteriorating” level of press freedom in the Philippines and condemned harassment and violence against journalists, citing the case of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa who was convicted of cyberlibel.

“All politically motivated charges against her and her colleagues should be dropped,” according to the resolution.

300-year conditioning
“They can do what they want at these times, if they want to implement it, go ahead,” he added.

An obviously exasperated Roque, said such a move would make the EU look to the world as “an entity which worsened the suffering of the Philippines.”

The Palace official added Filipinos would accept the situation as history repeating itself, noting that the Philippines had suffered from the 300-year colonization of Spain, a member of the European Union.

“I’m sorry I’m being very undiplomatic in my answer but what else can I say? At the time of pandemic, they are threatening us. Susmaryosep. What else can we lose?” Roque said.

“We have hit the rock bottom by way of our economy because of COVID-19. If they want additional burdens to Filipinos and it will make them happy, go ahead,” he added.

Roque also claimed there is nothing the Philippines can do to prevent the suspension of tariff perks.

Last year, about P113 billion worth of Philippine goods entered the EU under the zero-tariff GSP+ mechanism.

The EU is the Philippines’ fourth largest trading partner, accounting for almost nine percent of the country’s total trade.

Without good reason
Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Secretary Ramon Lopez said the Philippines has done its part in coordinating with the EU Commission regarding the efforts of the country to uphold basic rights.

“We have an Inter-agency working group in place that attend to the regular monitoring visits and respond accordingly to various issues if and when they are officially raised by the EU Commission,” Lopez said in a statement.

“So far, we are able to explain objectively the Philippines side on issues that are raised and we don’t see any reason why our GSP+ privilege will be withdrawn,” Lopez asserted.

The DTI chief noted the GSP+ rating of the EU is “precisely helping address poverty and attendant social and economic issues, and helping Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) in many parts of the country, by allowing greater EU market access for Philippine products.”

Lopez explained that the EU Commission has a mechanism in place and process to follow to verify issues before sanctions are imposed, seemingly hoping that the EU Commission will give consideration to its sanction.

Misinformation tool
Roque denied accusations of human rights violations and attacks on press freedom, claiming that what happens to EU is a “classic case of misinformation” on the situation in the Philippines.

“This is a classic case of misinformation. Unfortunately, the enemies of the Philippines, including the CPP-NPA, have a strong influence on Europe,” said Roque, who also pointed out that communist leader Joma Sison is in self-exile in the Netherlands.

Roque also called on Philippine ambassadors in European countries, as well as lawmakers, to inform their counterparts on what has been happening in the country.

“I know you have a lot in your plate but it’s important that you also prioritize spreading the truth that democracy in the country is very much alive,” he noted.

with Raffy Ayeng

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Heaven Peralejo: I didn’t ask anyone for money

Louise Lizan

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PERALEJO PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF IG HEAVEN PERALEJO

There are only memories and no money borrowed in the wake of TV actress Heaven Peralejo’s romantic relationship with Jimuel Pacquiao.

A year after the couple’s breakup — amid rumors that money was an issue throughout their relationship — Heaven allegedly texted and asked for financial assistance from Jimuel’s father, Sen. Manny Pacquiao.

The allegation was amplified on 12 September by talent manager Lolit Solis’ Instagram post (@akosilolitsolis): “May balitang humingi daw ng tulong si Heaven Peralejo kay Champ Manny Pacquiao… Dating BF (boyfriend) ni Heaven ang anak na lalaki ni Champ Manny kaya at least magkakilala sila, pero ang hindi maganda at baka malagyan ng malisya iyon, kay Champ Manny nag-text si Heaven.”

Lolit pointed out that, to avoid any misunderstanding, Heaven should have approached Sen. Manny’s wife, Jinkee: “Kung babae ka, sa babae ka humingi, pag lalaki, sa lalaki ka naman mag-text.”

At the end of her post, Lolit commended Jinkee Pacquiao, after she reportedly gave Heaven P100,000.

“Dapat talagang magpasalamat si Heaven kay mama Jinkee, bongga ha, 100K agad ang padala. Laking tulong na iyon, dami nang mabibili,” Lolit said.

 

JIMUEL Pacquiao refutes claims that ex-girlfriend Heaven Peralejo asked for financial assistance.
SCREENGRAB FROM ABS-CBN

Denial
But Heaven has denied that she asked for money from her ex-boyfriend’s family. She lamented that the rumor has resulted in negative public opinion against her.

Breaking her silence two days after the rumors, she declared: “I’ll get straight to the point, I didn’t ask anyone for money.”

She added: “I am beyond grateful that I am blessed with opportunities to earn an honest living. Whatever I have now is a product of my hard work and not extracted from anyone’s pockets.”

Heaven said she was also grateful that Jimuel and the Pacquiao family were quick to defend her. On Instagram she thanked Jinkee as well.

Jinkee likewise took to Instagram to refute the allegations, saying there was no truth to the issue: “Hindi po siya nanghingi at wala po kaming binigay na pera. Tigilan na po ang pang-ba-bash at wala po (itong) katotohanan!”

Jinkee also urged everyone to “be at peace with” and “love one another” and wished Heaven to stay safe and beautiful.

Jimuel likewise defended Heaven: “I would like to clarify that the issue posted by Lolit Solis and fashionpulis about Heaven is false. There was no money given and there was no communication.”

He added: “I just want to clear things up. She is not that type of girl and we are in good terms, so no need for all the bashing.”

Lolit has retracted her statement after a discussion with Jinkee. Lolit said that Jinkee was bothered about the negative reactions from the post.

Lolit has taken down the post and apologized: “So sorry na, ganuon pala karami ang nag-react sa IG ko, kalokah talaga. So sorry sa naging reaction ng marami.”

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P29B expands gratis tests

Michelle R. Guillang

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Some P29 billion will be allotted for next year’s expanded targeted testing program which seeks to enable select individuals to get tested for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) free of charge as long as they are members of the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) but most of the supposed beneficiaries are ignorant about it.

A lawmaker pointed out not all testing laboratories accredited by Department of Health (DoH) were informed about those covered in the expanded testing for COVID-19.

During the hearing for DoH’s budget for 2021 at the House of the Representatives legislators said that of the 105 accredited testing centers, only a few know about the funded program.

Under the scheme, the DoH has identified 10 sub-groups (A to J) including symptomatic patients, contact-traced individuals and healthcare workers who can avail of free COVID-19 testing.

Also, among beneficiaries are repatriated overseas Filipino workers, locally stranded individuals, pregnant women and dialysis patients.

Workers in tourist zones, public utility drivers, teachers, bank tellers, cashiers, security guards and other types of workers are also covered by the testing program.

Undersecretary Myrna Cabotaje said DoH had issued an advisory circular regarding the expanded testing plan as part of an information drive in July 2020.

Despite the DoH’s memorandum of expanded testing strategy in line with the directive of the Inter-Agency Task Force on emerging infectious diseases, Cabotaje said the agency has yet to finalize the rules on people who qualify under the sub groups.

“We are exploring the ways in how we can assess those who will be covered from A to J,” Cabotaje said.

“Its coverage is broader. We have expanded this to cover workers in tourist locations, those in economic companies who need to work amid the pandemic,” she added in mixed English and Filipino.

Cabotaje noted that the patients can directly present their official receipt (OR) to file for reimbursement at PhilHealth.

P2.5B for vaccine
About P2.5 billion will be allocated for vaccines. DoH will prioritize the “most at risk population” which includes medical frontliners and barangay health workers, but a total of P12.9 billion is needed for the purchase of vaccines, Cabotaje noted.

“We have discussed that a P2.5 billion fund will be initially proposed for the 2021 budget, because there is a scheme that we can make a loan from the LandBank in order to cover those who will also be needing vaccines,” said Cabotaje. DoH is now looking for possible storage facilities where vaccines could be kept.

DoH Secretary Francisco Duque III made an appeal before the House Committee on Appropriations for an additional fund of P10 billion to upgrade the country’s health facilities amid the pandemic.

Duque said the plan is to allocate the proposed supplementary budget for DoH’s health facilities enhancement program (HFEP) that seeks to provide training to health professionals to improve people’s access to quality healthcare.

The DoH secretary noted that only P4.8 billion was approved by the Department of Budget and Management for the program from the original P45 billion proposal. The DoH had a P8.38 billion budget for its HFEP in 2020.

In the approved budget, the DoH intends to allocate P4.68 billion for the procurement of equipment for 1,633 health facilities in barangay health centers, rural health centers, local health centers and DoH hospitals.

UHC to be affected
According to DoH, some P25 million will be used for the procurement of ambulances and P82 million for monitoring and evaluation activities.

Duque said the budget cut would affect DoH’s target of implementing universal health care (UHC) due to lack of infrastructures and equipment.

“We’re appealing for the support of the House of the Representatives in augmenting the approved budget in the National Expenditures Program for the HPEF with an additional P10 billion budget,” Duque said during the hearing.

Meanwhile, the DoH will allocate P2 million for environmental and occupational health projects and P615.5 million for the provision of mental health medicines.

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Ghost tours

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Airlines are resorting to flight gimmicks to generate revenues amid the extended lull in air travel and tourism due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In Thailand, an operator of commercial planes in the coastal city of Pattaya still sells flight tickets, but buyers only get to enjoy first class seating and cafe dining inside the plane which does not fly. Paying guests get a tour but only as far as the cockpit where they can temporarily pretend to be pilots.

In Taiwan, EVA Air managed to get full booking for a special flight in celebration of Father’s Day last 8 August. The Hello Kitty flight BR5288 with 309 passengers onboard took off from Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport and flew for two hours and 45 minutes before turning back. The passengers got a tour of landmarks and scenery, including islands, at altitudes from 20,000 to 25,000 feet.

The latest to offer similar tour flights was Australian air carrier Qantas. Its seven-hour scenic “flight to nowhere” on 10 October was sold out in just 10 minutes. The 134 available seats on a wide-body Boeing 787 priced between $575 and $2,765 will give passengers a low-level scenic view over the famous Great Barrier Reef and other spots.

Meanwhile, cruise ships may take a while to offer similar gimmicks as some of these vessels were sites of COVID-19 outbreaks. Many of the gigantic floating hotels have been grounded in anchorages as port authorities disallowed docking to prevent the entry of possibly infected passengers.

Nevertheless, one enterprising Briton, Paul Derham, was able to cash in on the tourism derelicts floating idly in the southwest coast of the UK.

Derham, a former cruise ship worker now operating two ferries in Mudeford, a small beachside parish in England’s Dorset region, offered 2.5-hour sea tours of “ghost ships” as what the empty cruise vessels have become. Locals curious of the hospitality behemoths they can only see from a distance bought Derham’s ferry tickets for the close encounter with the ghost ships.

Incidentally, many participants to Derham’s Ghost Cruise Tours are avid cruisers, and they joined the sail-by not just for the spectacle. Since cruising won’t be available any sooner, their ferry ride around cruise ships would at least give them the feel of being back aboard the pleasure liners.

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Cayetano-Velasco rivalry heats up: House gun duel over funds?

Aldrin Cardona

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From almost coming to blows to the same pair of lawmakers agreeing to a gun duel, incidents of congressmen letting off their steam through Viber exchanges have exposed how low the House of Representatives becomes when its members fight over money.

It’s no paltry reason that more than P10 billion with Special Allotment Release Order (SARO) for projects in the congressional districts of Taguig and one Camarines Sur are being questioned by several lawmakers. They would like to know why some are getting more while the rest have far less.

They’re for this year. But there’s more where these monies are coming from.

The exchanges are now being viewed as a preview of what now appears as a botched term-sharing deal between House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco.

Cayetano’s district in Taguig, as well as his wife Lani Cayetano’s (yes, they split Taguig City’s two districts using separate addresses and voting precincts), have also allegedly received P8-billion from the Department of Public Works and Highways’ (DPWH) budget for next year.

Another P11.8 billion in infrastructure funds will go to Camarines Sur.

The province is divided into two legislative districts.

District 2 is represented by Cayetano ally Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund “LRay” Villafuerte.

District 1 has Cayetano as its “caretaker congressman” following the death of Marissa Lourdes M. Andaya on 5 July this year due to cancer.

The amounts were first disclosed by Negros Oriental 3rd District Representative Arnolfo “Arnie” Teves Jr during a House hearing on the DPWH 2021 budget on Thursday.

Teves is a member of the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), President Rodrigo Duterte’s party when he sought the presidency in 2016, and whose members belong to the bloc supporting Velasco.

The Marinduque lawmaker is set to take his turn—for 21 months until 2022—in the term-sharing deal concocted no less by Cayetano, who had agreed to serve 15 months as House Speaker which is supposed to end in October.

Cayetano, sources say, is reneging on this agreement.

This has sent many lawmakers up in arms. This issue about the inequitable distribution of funds makes the congressmen seethe even more.

Cayetano is also acknowledged as a key member of the Nacionalista Party, to which Villafuerte belongs. The NP is led by the power couple Manny and Senator Cynthia Villar, parents of DPWH Secretary Mark Villar whose agency is responsible for the funds’ release to Cayetano and Villafuerte.

The P10 billion was the DPWH fund surrendered to the Office of the President supposedly for the COVID-19 fight. The OP had returned the money to the agency, but it has become a discretionary fund that was reportedly easier to manipulate.

The agency has control over this lump sum after that.

Teves’ percolated the House’s Viber group with many lawmakers now questioning the House leadership.

But several Tribune sources claimed it had started way back when one of their peers—a Cayetano ally—challenged a Velasco supporter (a senior member of the House) to a gun duel to settle their issues.

It was the second time for them to figure in near physical altercation after the same pair nearly came to blows last year during talks on appropriations.

Most congressional districts are receiving just P2-billion worth of projects, with some even less.

Total allocation for the Visayas bloc, meanwhile, is only eight percent of the 2021 budget.

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Abolish or privatize

Hananeel Bordey

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If he can have his way, President Rodrigo Duterte has only two options for the corruption-ridden Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) — abolish or privatize.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III disclosed this yesterday after he, along with Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and House Majority Leader Martin Romualdez visited Malacañang Wednesday night to tackle certain measures needed to cut red tape and corruption.

“(Regarding the Universal Health Care) and PhilHealth Law, he said he wanted PhilHealth abolished or privatized,” Sotto said.

The Senate chief, however, suggested to the Chief Executive to test the operations of PhilHealth under newly-installed President and CEO Dante Gierran before making major actions to fix the state insurance firm.

Gierran replaced retired military general Ricardo Morales as PhilHealth chief weeks ago after the latter stepped down from his post due to health reasons, in the middle of congressional probes on alleged corruption in the agency.

Prior to his appointment, Gierran worked for 27 years in the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) before he became its chief, a post he retired from last February.

Cleanse the ranks
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, in a television interview, said the Chief Executive wants Gierran to cleanse the ranks of the state insurer until December before deciding if he would abolish or privatize the firm which has been marred by anomalies.

“The President wants to clean up PhilHealth, and that is why the deadline given to Attorney Gierran is to enable him — or a deadline to clean up the organization,” Roque said.

“File all the cases that need to be filed, suspend, terminate, whatever you need to do in order to cleanse the ranks of PhilHealth,” he added.

Sotto explained to Duterte that the PhilHealth’s background should be taken on the financial aspect as it is an insurance corporation and not a health entity.

Sotto has filed Senate Bill 1829 which seeks to install the Finance Secretary as the ex-officio chairman of the PhilHealth Board by amending Section 13 of Republic Act 11223 of the UHC Law.

“But I said it might be better to wait a few months and see how the new admin performs and that I have a bill making the Secretary of Finance the chair of the Board instead of the (Department of Health) secretary. He agreed to my proposal,” Sotto added.

Missed opportunity
But the Senate leader missed the opportunity to talk about Health Secretary Francisco Duque III with Duterte.

“I was ready to talk about it but he did not bring the name up,” Sotto said when asked if they talked about the embattled Health chief.

Duterte, in numerous public briefings, has assured Duque that he still got his trust despite calls for his resignation over his failure to lead the country’s response against COVID-19 and his negligence on the corrupt activities inside PhilHealth.

The Senate has recommended graft and malversation charges against Duque for his negligence in the implementation of the controversial Interim Reimbursement Mechanism or a cash advance mechanism that seeks to aid healthcare institutions amid fortuitous events like COVID-19.

But despite the non-mention of Duque’s status, Sotto disclosed that he was able to discuss with the president, his filed Senate Bill 1829 amending the Universal Health Care Act.

The bill proposes the appointment of the Secretary of Finance as ex-officio chairman of the PhilHealth Board replacing the DoH Secretary.

Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, the convenor of Task Force PhilHealth revealed Thursday that they are planning to form few more composite teams as they dig deeper into the multi-billion mess at PhilHealth.

So far, there are two composite teams that have been created to find evidence on what really happened at the state health insurer.

Guevarra said the two operational composite teams are the IT and legal sectors team which has separate focus in the conduct of their investigation.

“Two so far, for the IT and LEGAL sectors. We may create a few more,” said Guevarra when asked if there would be more composite teams to be created given the depth of the corruption hounding the agency.

However, Guevarra did not mention how many more composite teams are needed to be created as the task force are discussing the matter as they need to prioritize.

Elmer Manuel,
MJ Blancaflor
and Alvin Murcia

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