Opinion

Free swab tests?

Free swab tests?

Even with price caps set on the real time reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction swab test for coronavirus disease 2019, prices remain beyond the reach of many Filipinos. The prices are steep even for the moderately well off, especially if the RT-PCR test is needed not because of illness or potential infection but as a requirement for certain activities such as traveling.

Public response has been tepid in efforts to revive domestic tourism, which is being encouraged through the reopening of resort areas and accommodation establishments as well as the expansion of flight services and land transportation. Among the reasons is the price of the swab test – touted as the gold standard in COVID testing.

Filipinos usually travel for leisure with family members, each of whom must get a swab test prior to taking a flight and staying in an accredited hotel or other accommodation establishment. That’s a minimum of P3,800 per person even under the price caps. There are swab tests for less than P2,000, but these are for Marikina residents, or those who are willing to wait in a long line at the Philippine General Hospital.

Now the government is studying the possibility of providing the swab tests for free to all Filipinos. On orders of President Duterte, the Department of Health and other agencies are studying the feasibility of free testing.

For sure it will be a welcome development. The question is whether the government has the money. Unlike vaccination for a particular disease, swab testing is not a one-time (or two-dose) thing; it can be required for different purposes over a short period. The government is now deep in debt to finance pandemic responses. The Philippine Health Insurance Corp. cannot even keep its payments up to date to the Philippine Red Cross, a humanitarian organization, for the swab tests conducted on Filipinos returning from overseas.

The government cannot afford a quick, full rollout of the Universal Health Care Law, and now P72.5 billion has been allocated in the 2021 national budget for COVID vaccine procurement. While free swab testing would be welcome, the government will be hard-pressed to find funds for it.