National gov’t lags behind LGUs, firms in making vaccine deals – senators
MANILA, Philippines — Still faced with legal and political obstacles, the national government is already lagging behind cities and private companies in the acquisition of coronavirus vaccines, senators said on Wednesday as they discussed a bill to expedite the purchase of COVID-19 jabs.
For Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, it was the public’s growing skepticism over the administration’s ability to purchase the vaccines fast enough and without compromising quality that pushed local government units (LGUs) and the private sector to arrange their own deals with drug manufacturers.
The senator made this observation during the plenary debate on Senate Bill No. 2057, after the measure’s sponsor, Senate finance committee chair Juan Edgarda Angara, told the body that some companies and local governments had already “perfected” contracts with pharmaceuticals.
In contrast, the national government has yet to finalize even one procurement deal, Recto said, recounting the disclosure made last week by Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., the head of the country’s vaccination program.
In the case of local governments, a number of wealthy cities and municipalities have signed tripartite agreements with suppliers and the national government, albeit without any provision for a downpayment, as this was not allowed under procurement and local government laws, Angara said, citing information relayed to him by Galvez, who was in attendance.
Senate Bill No. 2057 will cure that legal bottleneck by allowing local governments to directly procure from manufacturers and to pay them up to 50 percent in advance to secure the deal.
On the other hand, some private companies have already jumped ahead of the government, sealing contracts for the supply of the COVID-19 shots after paying a downpayment, according to Angara, without citing specific details of the contracts.
Recto cited two reasons the private sector and local governments “stepped up to the plate” and opted not to rely on the national government: First, they were confident of procuring the vaccine quicker; and second, they wanted to pick the brand of their choice, instead of being forced to offer China-made vaccines that are apparently favored by the Duterte administration.
“Many people are worried about vaccination. But if you offer them choices, maybe the take-up rate would be better to a certain degree. Would you agree this is one of the reasons LGUs are stepping up to the plate?” Recto asked.
Angara replied in the affirmative.
Recto’s point was echoed by Sen. Cynthia Villar, who noted that her home city of Las Piñas had decided on its own to secure supply deals with AstraZeneca and Novavax “because we’re afraid there will be no vaccine that will arrive in Las Piñas.”
“Local governments are purchasing because they think the national government cannot purchase it for them,” Villar said. “Even the private sector, they are doubting whether the national government can provide for [employees].”
One of many delays
For Sen. Francis Pangilinan, this was no longer surprising considering the ”delays” in the other aspects of the national government’s pandemic response.
“I think one major reason is, for the last 10 to 11 months, [we’ve seen] delays in the cash aid, delays in the testing laboratories, delays in the delivery of PPEs (personal protective equipment), delays in contract tracing, and all other delays precisely because of procurement bureaucratic red tape,” he said.
Sen. Pia Cayetano said she was “baffled” by the apparent reluctance of the local governments to rely on the national government despite the latter’s efforts to ensure availability of funds from multilateral or bilateral loan agreements.
“No one is blaming local governments for their desire to buy their own vacccines… but is no one in the government taking a position to say, ‘look, LGUs, we can provide these vaccines sooner than later?’” she said.
Cayetano noted that the money and resources spent by cities and municipalities for vaccine procurement could be used for other purposes, since the national government had already guaranteed it would be buying enough COVID-19 jabs to protect the entire Philippine population.
She wondered if the problem stemmed from “lack of coordination.”
Angara agreed with the senator’s point, suggesting there might be “information asymmetry” between the national and local governments.
Recto asked: “Why is it that other countries poorer than us have gone ahead of us in the vaccination program?”
Angara replied: “I‘m not too aware of what other countries are doing, but according to the vaccine czar (Galvez), some are donations, while others ordered ahead of us.”
“Precisely,” Recto retorted. He also noted that another factor in the reluctance to embrace the administration’s COVID-19 procurement efforts was the apparent preference for Chinese vaccines.
Angara admitted that most local governments and private companies had preferred to have contracts with AstraZeneca of the United Kingdom.
“Did anybody line up for Sinopharm or Sinovac?” Recto asked, referring to the Chinese pharmaceuticals.
“Nobody,” Angara replied.
Race against the clock
Tuesday’s debate centered on Senate Bill No. 2057, or the proposed COVID-19 Vaccination Program Act of 2021. The measure seeks to speed up the procurement and administration of COVID-19 vaccines by allowing LGUs and private entities to directly procure doses with their own funds under tripartite agreements with the national government.
“We need to expedite our procurement because we are in a race against the clock,” said Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, one of the principal authors and sponsors of the bill.
“We need mass inoculation and herd immunity as soon as possible,” he said in his sponsorship speech on Tuesday. “About 70 LGUs are already in negotiations with vaccine suppliers through the tripartite mechanism, and they will of course need to deposit advance payments to secure their vaccines. Otherwise, they will lose the allocation.”
For the duration of the pandemic, the bill will exempt LGUs from Section 338 of the Local Government Code and Section 88 of the Government Auditing Code, which prohibit them from making advance payments.
The local governments will thus be able to secure COVID-19 vaccines with advance payments of up to 50 percent.
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