Palace: Ona still health chief
MANILA, Philippines—Malacañang has extended indefinitely the leave of absence imposed by President Benigno Aquino III on Health Secretary Enrique Ona pending a review of his explanation on his controversial choice of an antipneumonia vaccine allegedly against the recommendation of global health authorities.
Well-placed sources told the Inquirer that Ona had indeed offered to resign on Thursday but was told to stay put.
According to deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte, Ona last week submitted to President Aquino his explanation on why he decided to issue a certificate of exemption for the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine 10 (PCV 10) when the Department of Health (DOH) was already set to purchase the supposedly better-performing PCV 13.
The PCV 10 was slightly cheaper than the PCV 13, which was the vaccine type recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other global health experts.
But the WHO has denied that it filed a complaint and explained that, at the DOH’s request, it made assessments regarding the vaccines concerned.
Ona submits report
“My understanding is that Secretary Ona has already submitted the report that was required of him by President Aquino, and that Secretary Ona is extending his leave of absence to afford the President time to assess the contents of the report that he submitted,” Valte said.
She said she had seen the document submitted by Ona and described it as “thick with several annexes.”
Ona told the Inquirer in a telephone interview on Thursday, the day his month-long leave was to end, that he would submit a courtesy resignation to the President that day.
He also denied that there was any corruption involved in the controversial P800-million purchase of the PCV 10 vaccine and had the documents to prove it.
Valte said Ona did not submit a letter of resignation nor did he go to Malacañang on Thursday to see the President. She said Ona only got to speak to Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. on the phone.
It was Ochoa who told Ona that the Palace was extending his leave of absence, she said.
“There were reports that he (Ona) was in the Palace. He was not,” Valte said.
A highly placed source confirmed that Ona did offer to resign, but it was turned down.
Ona confirmed on Friday that his leave of absence had indeed been extended by the President.
The health secretary, whose month-long leave began on Oct. 28, is the first Cabinet official to be asked by the President to go on leave because of a controversy.
Mr. Aquino earlier said he had asked Ona to go on leave because of the “immediate danger” that could result from Ona’s decision on the purchase of the antipneumonia vaccines, especially because children would be the main recipients of the vaccines. The purchase of the antipneumonia vaccine is part of the DOH’s Expanded Program on Immunization (EPI).
Asked if the Palace considered the controversy surrounding Ona a corruption issue or an ethical one, Valte said it was neither.
“The better categorization would be decision-making because it’s the PCV 10 versus the PCV 13. That’s how I understood it. The President has not mentioned any graft-related question or any graft-related angle,” she said.
Valte said Mr. Aquino’s main concern was “if there is going be a delay in the program to administer (the vaccines).”
How Aquino works
“As you all know, certain vaccines for certain diseases or illnesses are supposed to be administered at precise times,” she said.
Asked if Mr. Aquino still had confidence in Ona, Valte replied:
“The President was quite categorical in the sense that he had raised questions on a particular issue. Now that Secretary Ona has given the answers to that, it’s now time for the President to assess the answers that have been given to him, and also to perhaps propound additional questions.”
Describing how the President works, she said Mr. Aquino will go through the documents to see if the data submitted are sufficient to answer his questions.
“At this point, it would not be healthy to continue to speculate on the status [of Ona] when the matter is quite clear, and that we would encourage everyone to just afford the time for the assessment,” Valte said.
Valte said Health Undersecretary Janette Garin remains the acting secretary with the extension of Ona’s leave.
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