Aquino accepts Ona resignation

But replacement by Garin unclear

PRESIDENT Benigno Aquino III accepted the resignation of Health Secretary Enrique Ona Friday, more than a month since he was told to go on leave pending an investigation of alleged irregularities in his department’s purchase of vaccines.

Days before Ona’s leave was set to end last month, the President asked him to extend it until the probe was complete.

Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. informed Health Secretary Ona that the President has accepted his resignation effective today,” Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma said Friday.

Coloma could not say, however, if acting Health Secretary Janette Garin would replace Ona.

In an interview in Busan last week, the President disclosed that Ona was also being investigated for three to four other procurement problems, aside from the purchase of Pneumococcal Conjugate Vaccine 10 or PCV-10.

“It’s not just the PCV. There are several others -- about three or four other issues. Two of those have already been investigated,” the President said.

Aquino said he has yet to finish reading the report submitted to him by Ona last month, which has since been turned over to the National Bureau of Investigation.

 the Health chief to revert to PCV-10 worth P833 million when the department previously bought PCV-13, which is believed to be more cost-effective.

“They started with PCV-10 then went to PCV-13. It became more controversial because they then went back to PCV-10 the succeeding year. PCV-13 covers three more diseases. If they changed the procurement, there must be a legitimate reason,” Aquino said.

“If you changed to PCV-13, then it must be that it is better than PCV-10. How come they decided to go back to PCV-10?” the President said.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima earlier said the NBI’s investigation was being hampered by the refusal of some Health officials to cooperate.

Ona, however, insisted that the allegations against him were “malicious and false.”

On Tuesday, there were reports that Ona had his personal effects removed from his office at the Health Department. He reportedly submitted his resignation to the President on the same day.

In a statement submitted to the NBI, Ona said he was convinced that PCV 10 would better advance the health interest of the Filipino people, after muc discussion of the cost-effectiveness of PCV 10 and PCV 13, and the need to maximize limited government resources.

“The primary objective in procuring PCV 10 instead of PCV 13 was to enable the DOH optimize limited government resources and to have the most number of infant beneficiaries but still achieve the best possible health outcomes,” Ona said.

Ona said he exercised his best judgment in issuing the certificate of provisional exemption to PCV 10 to enable the government to buy the vaccine, which is $1 pere dose cheaper than PCV 13.

He said the decision allowed the government to realize savings of P231.72 million and to increase the number of beneficiaries from 300,000 to 423,000 infants.

Ona said it was his decision to buy PCV 10 after a series of discussions with other Health officials.

Neither PCV 10 nor PCV 13 are included in the Philippine National Formulary System, he said. But he said experts agree that both vaccines are equally effective, based on studies conducted in other countries.

“Thus, the issue was, which is more cost effective given the limited resources of the government,” said Ona.

He said the department asked the World Health Organization to assess the costs and and outcomes associated with each vaccine. Pending the results of the WHO study, he said, medical experts and Health officials were equally divided on which vaccine to purchase.

“In the midst of the medical debate on which vaccine is more cost-effective, I, as the secretary of Health, exercised my best judgment in deciding to procure PCV 10, instead of PCV 13. While I do not exactly recall the specific prices of each vaccine, I know that PCV 10 is substantially lower than PCV 13,” Ona’s statement to the NBI said.

Contrary to some reports, he added, the WHO did not endorse a particular PCV, but concluded that the two vaccines—PCV 10 or PCV 13—were both cost-effective.

“The choice between preventing thousands of potentially fatal IPD episodes compared to millions of milder but far more prevalent otitis media episodes is inherently a subjective value judgement,” the WHO said. 

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