Duterte takes responsibility for ‘expensive’ DOH purchases
MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte took responsibility for the “expensive” equipment purchases made by the Department of Health (DOH) to help the country stop the spread of the new coronavirus, but he ordered the investigation of the alleged overpriced laboratory equipment exclusively sold by a business couple.
He said he had listened to Health Secretary Francisco Duque III about the DOH purchases.
“I gave him the instruction and I admit it in public now. I told him, ‘Do everything you can.’ He said, ‘There’s so many proposition.’ I don’t care if it’s not cheap, if it’s expensive, just go ahead and do something about it, because we’re hard-pressed here,” Duterte recalled his conversation with Duque during his report to the nation of the national health emergency late on Monday night.
A majority of the senators have urged Duque to step down not only for his alleged lack of leadership in handling the outbreak but also for the overpriced personal protective equipment (PPE) and machines to test for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the severe respiratory disease COVID-19.
Last week, Duque faced a Senate hearing where he was grilled on the DOH’s purchase of alleged overpriced medical equipment.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson earlier questioned the procurement of medical and testing equipment at prices higher than what the private sector had paid for.
Sen. Grace Poe also cited the DOH’s purchase of “overpriced” PPE.
‘That was my order’
The President said he had ordered Duque to make the purchases for the government’s COVID-19 response.
“I want the Filipino people to know that I take full responsibility, that it was my order … [to] hurry it up,” he said, adding: “I don’t care where you get the money, even if you steal. I do not care whether you go and steal, borrow, or kill a person to get what needs to be done.”
The President said he did not mind if a government official committed a “wrong, as long as there is no malice.”
During his Monday night televised report, Mr. Duterte asked Budget Undersecretary Lloyd Lao to shed light on the PPE purchases.
Lao explained that the PPE bought by the government were of medical grade and met local and international standards, and they offered full protection to health-care workers on the front line.
Lawmakers had pointed out that the PPE bought by the DOH were priced at P1,800 per set compared to about P400 purchased by private groups.
The DOH, however, defended the purchases, saying the PPE it acquired were the “most complete” set, unlike those donated to medical front-liners by private groups. It added that each set includes eight types of PPE.
The President told Lao to “throw away” substandard PPE that would only endanger the lives of doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals treating COVID-19 patients.
He also opposed the recycling of PPE because it might compromise safety.
“That’s the reason why we are spending money, and we will spend money,” Mr. Duterte said.
Order to NBI
But he said jacking up prices of coronavirus test kits and laboratory equipment was “repulsive to the human mind” and ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to investigate the business couple who claim they were the exclusive distributors of these products.
The President said he would leave it to the NBI to file criminal charges if there was probable cause.
Last week, Iloilo Rep. Janette Garin, a former health secretary, urged the President to crack down on the couple who, she said, was cornering the importation and distribution of the automated testing machines so only they could sell the devices at inflated prices.
She alleged that the couple was effectively “hoarding” the machines.
Garin criticized the DOH for not procuring kits for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests directly from the manufacturer to cut costs dramatically.
Lao informed the President that the couple owned Omnibus Bio-Medical System Inc., the exclusive distributor of Sansure Biotech, a Chinese company.
Also last week, Sen. Panfilo Lacson pointed to the alleged overpricing, saying the automated extraction machine from Sansure should only cost P1.75 million a piece but purchased at P4 million by the DOH.
Lao said Omnibus had complained that the government did not respect their status as exclusive distributors of Sansure. The government ended up buying the equipment from an exclusive distributor of Sansure based in Hong Kong, he said.
He added that he met with Sansure officers from China, and personally requested that they sell directly to the Philippine government.
Lao said Sansure was “willing to forgo Omnibus” and that Omnibus, as distributor, later expressed willingness to reduce its price.
Lao said he wanted Omnibus to be accountable for selling the equipment at a high price.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque on Tuesday said there was “really almost an attempt to blackmail us into buying something very expensive,” adding that there was basis for the NBI to investigate the couple for profiteering and hoarding.
“There is an issue of profiteering because some private firms are allegedly taking advantage of the need for PCR machines and PCR tests. This is a violation of the Bayanihan act, profiteering in a national emergency,” he said.
But Malacañang does not see the need to conduct an independent investigation of the alleged overpriced PPE, he said.
“It was clear and the doctors expressed their opinion that there is no irregularity, no overpricing because that is a PPE set. It includes goggles and protection for the feet. So there’s no question about the PPE,” Roque said in a press briefing on Tuesday.
Despite calls for resignation or replacement, Duque “continues to enjoy the trust and confidence of the President,” Roque said.
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