Philippines' Duterte promises payment as Red Cross stops COVID-19 tests

FILE PHOTO: President Rodrigo Duterte speaks after his arrival in Davao
FILE PHOTO: President Rodrigo Duterte speaks after his arrival in Davao

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Friday his government will pay the 931 million pesos ($19.25 million) it owes the Red Cross after the humanitarian agency stopped conducting COVID-19 tests.

The Philippine Red Cross (PRC), which has conducted 1.1 million swab tests and accounts for quarter of the country's output, on Friday stopped providing testing services until it gets paid, prompting the country's limited number of laboratories to fill the gap.

"The president has given his commitment that the government will pay its obligation to the PRC," Duterte's spokesman, Harry Roque, said in a statement. The government is calling on the PRC to resume its testing services, Roque added.

Returning overseas Filipino workers, frontline healthcare workers and individuals in large swabbing facilities benefit from free COVID-19 swab tests by the PRC. Testing cost is charged to Philippine Health Insurance Corp (Philhealth), the state health insurer.

But PRC said Philhealth had 931 million pesos in overdue obligations as of Oct. 13, hampering its ability to replenish test kits and pay for laboratory workers.

Returning Filipino workers need to test negative from COVID-19 before being allowed to leave quarantine hotels. The presidential office asked for patience and understanding of stranded overseas Filipino workers as it resolves the issue.

PRC said it would still conduct swab tests for paying clients.

With 365,799 confirmed infections and 6,915 deaths, the Philippines has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases and fatalities in Southeast Asia behind Indonesia.

($1 = 48.36 Philippine pesos)

(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Angus MacSwan)