Duque grilled over COVID-19 fund spending ‘deficiencies’
It seemed to summarize everything in a nutshell.
Not realizing his mic was on at one point in the Senate blue ribbon inquiry on Wednesday, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III muttered: “Nagulo na ‘yung utak ko. Di ko na alam (My brain is a mess. I don’t know anymore).”
Senators administered a public skewering at the online hearing, pressing the head of the Department of Health (DOH) for answers on the spending deficiencies that have driven thousands of health-care workers to practically beg for their special risk allowance (SRA) and other benefits.
The purchase of face masks and shields at “exorbitant” prices was also raised, along with the DOH’s “suspicious”transfer of P42 billion in COVID-19 funds to the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM).
Too little, too late
Duque and his subordinates sought to deflect blame for the DOH’s failure to fully spend pandemic response funds, arguing that the DBM not only did not give enough, but also released the money too late.
Leaders of nurses’ associations and health-care unions testified that many workers had not received the benefits to which they were entitled under the two Bayanihan laws, including the SRA, their meal, accommodation and transportation (MAT) allowances, as well as hazard pay and insurance coverage.
Explaining the matter on Duque’s behalf, Assistant Health Secretary Maylene Beltran said the DOH was given only a three-day window to spend around P9.7 billion in funds for the SRA from the time it made the request to when the DBM released the money.
As a result, only about P7.13 billion in SRA was released to 379,117 nurses and other medical workers between Dec. 19, 2020, and June 30, when the Bayanihan 2 law lapsed, according to Beltran.
There are about 526,000 licensed health professionals in the country.
“So not only was it not enough, it was even delayed?” Sen. Richard Gordon, the chair of the Senate blue ribbon committee, asked Beltran.
“Yes,” she said. Duque was overheard agreeing in the background.
Beltran cited the same reason for why the DOH had been unable to grant the MAT allowances for all but three hospitals in Metro Manila, arguing that the DBM released only P10 million for the purpose.
But Gordon said: “That is not an excuse to me.
“The DBM must enforce the law. You are part of the executive arm, and there is a statutory obligation to release the money. But you are saying that the DOH is in a difficult position and it’s the DBM’s fault for not releasing enough?”
Replied Beltran: “It is true that we are requesting a higher amount and the DBM is giving us an amount lower than what we requested.”
Told to respond, DBM officer in charge Tina Rose Marie Canda said: “If it is not enough, then why do they have to return money?”
“Just for the record, they (DOH) had P1.6 billion for 2020, which is still with them, but they have not used it,” Canda added, referring to part of the DOH’s unobligated funds from the 2020 appropriations law.
Asked for a rejoinder, a flustered Duque told Gordon that he could not answer.
“I will have to look into this. I have to be honest with these figures. I will have to go over the notes. We will get back to you on this, Mr. Chairman,” he said.
Gordon, however, would give Duque no respite.
“You’re the secretary, you’re given a budget, you need to use it. You need to assert it, because [if not] that makes you look negligent, that makes you look inefficient, that makes you look like you do not care,” he said.
Said Duque: “I’m just looking into this, give me a few minutes. I will look into it right now.”
Minutes later, the DOH chief, apparently unaware he was not on mute, was overheard saying his brain was “a mess.”
Without missing a beat, Gordon told Duque: “We have plenty of psychiatrists in the DOH. There are psychosocial services you can use. I consider you a good friend, but my loyalty is to my country first.”
Earlier in the hearing, Sen. Grace Poe wondered why Duque should not be suspended in view of the 2020 report of the Commission on Audit (COA) on the DOH’s “long list of deficiencies” in spending its budget.
Poe, who chairs the Senate public services committee, pointed out that the Office of the Ombudsman ordered the preventive suspension in 2020 of eight PhilHealth executives and five DOH officials for offenses related to the use of taxpayer money during the pandemic.
“Shouldn’t Secretary Duque be suspended by now, if you’re going to apply the same judgment …?” Poe said, adding:
“The fact that we can’t even go out of our homes—are we happy with what is happening? Are the medical front-liners happy with what is happening to them? Somebody must be held accountable.”
Poe cited the COA finding that the DOH had a total of P11.89 billion in unobligated funds on top of P42.1 billion that it transferred to partner agencies without a memorandum of agreement.
“This is not only negligence, this is criminal,” she said.
Citing the “overpriced” face masks and shields the DOH bought through the PS-DBM, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the transfer of funds allocated for the government’s COVID-19 response raised “red flags.”
“These are unaccounted or unliquidated transfers. These are most susceptible to corruption as they easily become invisible,” he said.
He expressed suspicion that purchases made under the PS-DBM were a scheme for agencies to “park” funds they could not yet spend.
Drilon noted that the P42 billion transferred to the PS-DBM comprised the biggest chunk of the P67 billion in COVID-19 funds that the DOH supposedly mismanaged.
He said it was “alarming” that out of the DOH’s P77-billion COVID-19 budget, the COA had found “deficiencies in the management of P67 billion.”
Drilon wondered why the DOH through the PS-DBM bought face masks and shields for P27.22 and P120 apiece, respectively, when the suggested retail prices (SRP) it had itself set were P2 to P4, and P26.50.
According to the COA report, the DOH bought a total of 113.9 million face masks from four suppliers at prices ranging from P13.50 to P27.72 each, for a total of P1.66 billion.
It also bought face shields for P120 each for a total of P158.1 million.
Lawyer Paul Guimbarda, acting director of the DOH procurement Service, said the cited prices were borne out of the high demand for face masks and shields at the height of the pandemic.
But Drilon dismissed Guimbarda’s explanation, citing a subsequent DOH circular that set the SRP for face masks and shields.
“If we look at the facts, it is obvious that there was an overprice,” he said.
Drilon said the resignation of the former head of the PS-DBM, lawyer Christopher Lloyd Lao, was “suspicious.”
He said Lao should be invited to the next hearing for questioning on other allegedly anomalous deals at the PS-DBM.
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