Finally, govt takes some responsibility for Covid-19 testing

ACCORDING to a statement from Malacañang, the government will soon impose a price ceiling on the reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test for the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19), which is welcome news but leads to an inevitable question: What took so long?

Palace spokesman Harry Roque Jr. made the disclosure on Thursday, saying that an executive order capping the price of the RT-PCR test was awaiting President Rodrigo Duterte’s signature.

The Department of Health earlier recommended that price controls be imposed due to the high cost of the test in most testing facilities and the wide variance in prices.

Based on information available online, the cost of RT-PCR tests at testing labs around Metro Manila currently ranges from about P1,800 to as high as P6,000.

Although the government does subsidize a large number of tests via the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) coverage, the testing program has been problematic. Delays in payments from PhilHealth to testing labs were highlighted by the dispute that erupted when the Philippine Red Cross, whose testing costs are lower than other labs, halted testing under PhilHealth coverage due to nearly P1 billion in unpaid bills. Likewise, testing capacity has been a challenge. Although the time to return results has improved as more labs have come online since March, the waiting time for test results is inconveniently long for most people. In some cases, the return of results is tied to the cost of the test — pay more, get the results faster.

Although the move to cap testing prices is most welcome, it is unfortunate that the government has waited until now — seven months into the pandemic — to take that action.

The unregulated prices of tests, with most of them being on the higher side of the range, has led to significant gaps in test coverage of the population, which in turn has greatly reduced the effectiveness of the government’s contact tracing efforts.

Likewise, the high costs of tests have also been a roadblock to the government’s efforts to safely reopen the economy. A negative RT-PCR test has become a requirement for travels between different parts of the country, visits to tourism facilities, hotel stays and other economic activities. For example, most condominium and apartment properties require negative test certificates for new residents moving in and for workmen coming into the property.

Faced with the cost and inconvenience of testing, however, it seems many people simply opt out of the activities for which it is required. Tourism operators in Boracay, for instance, expecting an influx of visitors that has yet to materialize, have gone so far as to ask the government to drop the testing requirement in an effort to encourage local tourists. That is probably not a good idea, and, so far, the government has refused to go along with it. But it is emblematic of the public’s frustration with the country’s current testing framework.

There is obviously a significant cost to carrying out an RT-PCR test, and it is perhaps unreasonable to expect that the government should provide free testing for everyone or that it could afford to do so. However, the wide variance in prices strongly suggests that many facilities that are carrying out tests are doing so with profitability rather than public service in mind.

As the government has a responsibility, at a minimum, to ensure the widest possible availability of testing, not taking whatever steps are available to ensure that testing is available at the least reasonable cost is an oversight. It has to some degree served as an unnecessary brake on the country’s economic recovery from the pandemic, and in terms of its own test, trace and treat strategy to control and eventually defeat the coronavirus has been, with all due respect, a bit of an own-goal.

Be that as it may, that oversight has now been corrected, or is about to be, and we credit the government for that in spite of the fact that its decision to impose a price cap should have been made months ago. Recognizing an error and taking steps to correct it is, after all, the most anyone can ask from the government in a situation such as this accursed pandemic.

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