Ombudsman probes DOH mess in virus response
MANILA, Philippines — Ombudsman Samuel Martires on Wednesday said he had ordered an investigation of the alleged irregularities committed by Department of Health (DOH) officials and employees, including Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, in responding to the new coronavirus pandemic.
In a text message to reporters, Martires said he had formed a joint investigative team to look into the alleged irregularities, including the delayed procurement of personal protective equipment and other needs of health workers and lapses that led to the deaths of front-line hospital staff.
Martires said the team would also investigate the DOH’s “inaction” on the payment of benefits to the families of health workers who died or got severely ill in the line of duty, as well as the “confusing and delayed” reporting of coronavirus cases.
He said the Office of the Ombudsman was launching the investigation on its own initiative on the recommendation of several officials of the agency.
Martires said he also directed the team to look into the DOH’s purchase of 100,000 test kits and “news reports” about test kits developed by the University of the Philippines but rejected by the DOH.
He said the investigation actually started “a few weeks before the enhanced community quarantine was imposed [on] Luzon.”
“Our investigators were given the runaround by some DOH officials and [employees] by referring us from one department or office to another,” Martires said.
He said the runaround prompted him to authorize the investigators to file criminal or administrative charges against any official who would fail or refuse to comply with the legal processes, orders or requests of the investigative team.
Palace to DOH: cooperate
Martires warned that officials or employees who would willfully obstruct or hinder the investigation, or willfully mislead or attempt to mislead the Office of the Ombudsman, would face criminal and administrative charges.
Malacañang called on Duque and the rest of the DOH to cooperate with the Ombudsman investigation.
“The Ombudsman, as we all know, is an independent constitutional body, thus we will let the process run its course as we enjoin Secretary Duque and the entire DOH bureaucracy to cooperate with the investigation and respect the orders of the [Office of the Ombudsman],” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in a statement.
The DOH said it would cooperate with the investigation.
In a statement, the department said that since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, it had been open about all its actions, from the procurement of supplies to the provision of benefits to health workers.
It said the families of the 32 health workers who died of COVID-19, the severe respiratory ailment caused by the new coronavirus, and the 19 medical front-liners who fell severely ill while caring for COVID-19 patients had received the financial aid due them under the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act.
As for the accuracy and timeliness of its coronavirus data, the DOH said it had “religiously informed the public for corrections and clarifications raised by all sectors as it continu[ed] to validate all submitted data.”
“Amid the rapidly evolving and changing situation we are in, we are striving to ensure that all of the data we obtain are correct and verified for use of the public and our officials in deciding on our national response [to] COVID-19,” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said in an online press briefing.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and Sen. Panfilo Lacson were glad to hear about the Ombudsman’s decision.
Lacson had exposed the allegedly irregular purchase of testing kits and machines while Drilon had called out Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth), which Duque chairs, for its overpriced testing packages.
“It’s about time. I can only hope that this time around, the investigation will bear fruit and find those concerned liable and suffer the consequences of their misdeeds in taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis for self-aggrandizement,” Lacson said in a Viber message.
Drilon said government officials tasked with tackling the coronavirus crisis should be held accountable for their misdeeds.
“The lapses they committed have exposed to risk the welfare of the entire nation. Secretary Duque, in particular, has failed to do his job. The people have every right to demand accountability,” Drilon told the Inquirer.
Sen. Christopher “Bong” Go, chair of the Senate health committee, also welcomed Martires’ action, saying it was the Ombudsman’s “constitutional duty” and that the public should know the truth behind the allegations.
“The Filipinos people deserve a fair and impartial investigation in order to shed light on these alleged [irregularities] and also for concerned officials to have an opportunity to clear their name,” Go said.
Account for funds
“As a legislator and as chair of the Senate committee on health, I have reiterated numerous times amid this global health crisis that funds made available to address the COVID-19 pandemic and the needs of our people at this crucial time must be accounted for — up to the last centavo,” he said.
In April, at least 14 senators pushed a resolution demanding Duque to step down for “failure of leadership and negligence” in the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
President Rodrigo Duterte, however, told Duque to stay put.
—With reports from Leila B. Salaverria, Jovic Yee and Marlon Ramos
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