DOH pressed to explain use of pandemic funds
President Rodrigo Duterte and lawmakers on Thursday demanded that the Department of Health (DOH) account for the deficiencies found by the Commission on Audit (COA) in the use of a P67.323-billion fund for pandemic response.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said Mr. Duterte directed the DOH to submit a “comprehensive and clear” response to the COA audit report.
He said, however, that the President would not make any judgment until final reports were submitted by the COA and the health department through Health Secretary Francisco Duque III.
“We are not belittling the COA observations. These are very serious observations and we expect comprehensive and clear answers,” Roque said at a press briefing.
The COA’s initial findings showed that funds were available last year to the DOH to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, but a large amount was not used, he noted.
“The President is withholding judgment until after the DOH has submitted its comment to the exit conference, and the COA issues a final report,” he said.
Lawmakers castigated the DOH and Duque for the deficiencies in the use of the funds which the COA said had undermined the timely and efficient response to the pandemic during the first year of the national health emergency.
Calls for Senate probe
The P11.89 billion that was not used by the end of 2020 meant that the funds “were not translated to much-needed health supplies, equipment and services that could have benefited both the health workers and the general public during the critical times of the pandemic,” the COA reported.
Duque and other health officials can expect intense grilling on the COVID-19 funds when the DOH 2022 budget comes up for deliberation after Senators Grace Poe and Franklin Drilon separately filed resolutions calling for an inquiry into the COA report.
Drilon said the COA findings were “alarming and disturbing.”
The Senate minority leader said Congress should closely examine the use by the DOH of billions of pesos for COVID-19 response, including alleged corruption linked to the purchase of equipment and supplies.
A similar call for an investigation on the DOH handling of the COVID-19 funds was made at the House of Representatives by Deputy Minority Leader Carlos Isagani Zarate.
“This is not only an act of being inefficient, this is not only negligence, this borders on criminal negligence,” Zarate said of the deficiencies found by the COA.
“Many lives could have been saved last year if the funds were used properly,” he added.
Poe said the DOH “has a lot of explaining to do” in the upcoming budget deliberations.
“We expect the Senate investigation will help correct these deficiencies, seek accountability and ensure future funds are better managed,” she said.
Basis for filing case
Poe lamented that while the funds were meant to strengthen the health resources of the DOH in its fights against the pandemic, its “poor use denied Filipinos their right to health at a time when it is most needed.”
Roque said Mr. Duterte was aware that not all of the state auditor’s findings were sustained after a government agency had responded to its report.
“But he also knows that after the agency has given its answer and the COA has issued a final observation, this carries a lot of weight because it would be the basis of filing a case,” he added.
Mr. Duterte was “keen” to read the health department’s response to the COA’s grave observations, Roque said.
“We set aside billions for our COVID response, and he expects that all of these would be used so that these could benefit the people. Let us wait for the answers of the DOH,” he said.
Roque said that if irregularities were found, the President would take action regardless of who was involved.
“There are no sacred cows in this administration. Let us wait for the response of the DOH and let us wait for the final observations of the COA,” he said.
In a statement on Wednesday, Duque said “the P67.3 billion is accounted for.”
“Nothing was stolen and we allocated these funds for our people,” he said.
ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro accused Duque of corruption despite the secretary’s claim that all the funds were “properly allocated.”
‘Quit’ clamor revived
“The misuse of funds, procurement of medicines that are nearly expired or have already expired—is there no corruption there?” she asked, referring to a separate audit report on P95.15 million worth of expired and near expired or unused medicines and medical supplies.
Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas said that both Duque and Mr. Duterte must be held liable for the “fatal” handling of the COVID-19 funds.
Bayan Muna Rep. Eufemia Cullamat and Castro renewed their call for Duque to resign.
Anakalusugan Rep. Michael Defensor said that more than the missed opportunities, “the negligence of the DOH has caused death and despair of our people.”
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said Duque “doesn’t care about the health concerns of the people who he is supposed to serve.”
“What gives? It’s hubris. He only cares about his boss, the President who, for reasons only they probably know cannot and will not remove him from office in spite of repeated calls from the majority of senators and other sectors,” he said.
According to Sen. Risa Hontiveros, the COA findings on the DOH is “an indication of the neglect and failure of the government in its pandemic response.”
“We have always known that someone dropped the ball, and now, with the recent COA findings, we know exactly by how much,” she said, in reference to revelations in previous Senate hearings that Duque “dropped the ball” in the negotiations on vaccine procurement.
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