Politics rears ugly head in Ona case

THE Palace would not comment Tuesday on growing speculation that Health Secretary Enrique Ona was being eased out in favor Undersecretary Janette Garin, an ally of President Benigno Aquino III.

Officially, Ona went on a four-week leave to prepare answers to several questions that the President had about the Health Department’s vaccination campaign.

Ona on Tuesday confirmed Tuesday that he asked for time to answer the President’s questions about the immunization program and other issues.

Interviewed after he attended the necrological services of the former Health secretary and senator Juan Flavier, Ona said the process of preparing those answers was “very complicated and extensive.”

He also said the report he was preparing would include the department’s hospital reform program.

Asked if the President forced him to go on leave, he said: “What the President said yesterday, let’s just stick to it.”

Since Garin was appointed to the Health Department in July 2013, there was talk that she would replace Ona.

Garin, a three term congresswoman of Iloilo City, is a member of Aquino’s Liberal Party and his ally in the House of Representatives.

She was also a co-author of the Reproductive Health Bill, a priority measure of the Aquino administration, and touted as one of its major accomplishments.

In confirming Garin’s appointment as Health undersecretary, the President said her “extensive practice and knowledge as a medical practitioner,” and her legislative background, made her the perfect fit for the post.

Before that, in one of the Liberal Party’s campaign sorties in Iloilo province, the President announced he wanted Garin at the Health Department to help him in his programs.

Garin, an obstetrician-gynecologist, denied that politics was behind Ona’s leave of absence.

After attending Flavier’s necrological services at the Health Department’s convention hall, Ona went to his office on the second floor of the main building and stayed there for some time.

Despite being on leave, he initially said he wanted to go to Tacloban City upon the invitation of the Health Department’s regional director for Eastern Visayas.

He later changed his mind, however, one source at the Health Department said.

“Perhaps, he realized that he cannot represent the DOH in the event in Tacloban City for the Yolanda victims because he is on leave,” the source said.

Ona said his relationship with the President remains good, and that his condition is better now after suffering from allergies due to hair dye.

A source in the department said the President’s statement could be a signal that Ona should voluntarily give way to Garin, who has been appointed acting Health Secretary.

“From what we see, the President does not ax his Cabinet officials. He just gives them signs that they should make a graceful exit,” the source said.

“So if I were Secretary Ona, I would just quit the DOH because the President is already showing signs that he no longer wants me in his Cabinet,” the source added.

On the other hand, the source said, Ona was known to be stubborn and resistant to taking advice.

Yet another source said there were some reports of irregularities in the procurement of vaccines and hospital equipment, but said it was difficult to say if Ona was aware of these anomalies.

The President was also reportedly irritated with Ona’s request for P600 million funding for the rehabilitation of the Research Institute of Tropical Medicine amid the Ebola outbreak abroad. Ona earlier told the media they would need P500 million to address the outbreak of the fatal virus.

In a separate interview, Philippine College of Physicians president Anthony Leachon said letting Ona go on leave was the right thing to do.

“It is best to hear his side once he returns from his month-long leave,” said Leachon, who served Ona’s consultant from October 2010 to August 2013 for non-communicable diseases.

Leachon also suggested that Ona’s forced leave might be related to questions on his department’s use of its share of the so-called sin taxes on alcohol and tobacco.

In a recent Senate hearing, Ona was asked how these funds were used, and why the public could not feel any substantial improvements in health services.

In the Palace, Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma said Malacañang was not hiding anything about Ona’s four-week leave.

But when asked if the President was inclined to let go of Ona in favor of Garin, Coloma could not give a definite answer.

“The President has the final say as to who will lead government agencies. He is the Chief Executive, and all Cabinet members under the executive branch are under the leadership and supervision of the President. That is why he decides on those things,” Coloma said.

Coloma said the public should not read much into the earlier mix-up where presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda and Garin confirmed that Ona went on leave for personal and health reasons.

Aquino on Monday clarified that Ona sought the leave to give him more time to answer questions on the Health Department’s vaccination program.

“Secretary Lacierda’s statement on Secretary Ona’s leave of absence came from Undersecretary Garin, who has temporarily replaced Secretary Ona,” Coloma said.

“We are not hiding any details on this. The President has clarified the administrative process that Secretary Ona is currently undergoing,” the Palace official added.

Aquino said Ona asked for time to prepare his answers to the questions raised on the DOH’s immunization program, including the assumptions, target population, schedule of vaccination, and delivery of results.

“He cannot prepare his answers to all my questions if he continues to to discharge his day-to-day functions as Secretary of Health. So he asked to take a leave,” Aquino said.

Asked if he is still satisfied with Ona’s performance, the President said: “Whether or not I am satisfied will come after the results of these answers to the questions that were propounded to him.”

Garin earlier annouced that Ona had to go on sick leave because prescription medication has been ineffective in controlling his severe reaction to hair dye.

Ona’s leave of absence came at a time when the DoH is beefing up measures to prevent the entry of the deadly Ebola virus in the country.

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