President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered Health Secretary Francisco Duque III to answer the Commission on Audit’s (COA) report after the state auditor flagged the Department of Health (DOH) for not complying with existing laws and regulations in managing some P67.323 billion in COVID-19 response funds.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the instruction was to answer the COA’s observations, and emphasized that there are no sacred cows in the Duterte administration.
The COA audit earlier revealed initial deficiencies involving public funds amounting to P66.287 billion.
The state auditors also disclosed additional deficiencies involving COVID-19 funds amounting to P1.036 billion through a continuous audit.
The COA added that the over P67 billion funds that “remained idle” at the end of 2020 did not translate into “much-needed health supplies, equipment and services” that could have benefited both health workers and the public during the pandemic.
“We don’t take the observation lightly. The finding is heavy. We expect a comprehensive and clear answer from Secretary Duque,” Roque added.
Meanwhile, Roque assured the public that the President will never hesitate to take action against corrupt practices.
The Palace official said that the Health chief is ready and will answer each of the COA’s findings because it’s the agency’s mandate to be accountable on funds that it uses.
The Office of the Ombudsman, meanwhile, said it would await the completion of the audit process before taking action.
A statement from Ombudsman Samuel Martires said COA wanted to avoid filing a case based on preliminary audit findings only to have to withdraw it, as happened in 2018 with the case against former Caloocan City mayor Enrico Echiverri.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, on the other hand, said a resident ombudsman might be detailed to the DOH following findings by the Commission on Audit of alleged questionable and inefficient use of P67-billion of COVID-19 response funds last year.
Guevarra said, however, that the plan to assign Justice Department prosecutors and COA auditors as deputized ombudsmen would require the concurrence of the Office of the Ombudsman and the Commission on Audit.
Duque on Thursday said his track record would show his good service in the government, amid calls for him to resign, as he stressed that President Rodrigo Duterte wants him to stay.
“It’s up to the President. Ever since, he doesn’t want me to quit,” Duque said in Filipino.
Some of the items under the DOH’s P67.32-b COVID funds flagged by COA:
P42.41 billion transferred to procurement or implementing partner agencies without a memorandum of agreement or supporting documents
P5.038 billion contracts that lacked documentation
P1.41 billion donations in kind not properly accounted for
P98.40 million cash advances and petty cash
P539.29 million payment to health workers that did not comply with rules on allowances, resulting inpayment to unqualified recipients, overpayment and payment during periods not covered by ECQ
In a report on GMA News, Duque said Duterte had chosen him to lead the DOH because of his prior experiences in serving the government.
“President Duterte was the one who appointed me. I was at peace in my province when he asked me if I could serve under his administration,” Duque said in Filipino.
“He knew that I’ve served before. I became Health Secretary, I led the Civil Service Commission as well as the Government Service Insurance System. He knew how I perform my duties,” Duque said.
“I hope my track record will be remembered. I have served well,” he added.
Duque issued his statement after Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Eufemia Cullamat asked him to step down over the deficiencies in the use of P67.32 billion in COVID-19 funds, as flagged by COA.
This is not the first time that calls were made for Duque to resign as Health secretary. He was urged to resign amid the rising COVID-19 infections as well as the alleged corruption hounding the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth), where he sits as ex-officio chairman.
But President Duterte has consistently defended Duque and refused to sack him.
Some lawmakers have been urging Duque to resign due to alleged corruption within the DOH despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
Duque insisted there was no corruption in his agency as every centavo of its budget was being used for the welfare of Filipinos, especially health workers, in this health crisis.
In its annual report for 2020, state auditors said the deficiencies were mainly caused by non-compliance with laws, rules, and regulations.
According to COA, a total of P42.41 billion intended for the DOH’s COVID-19 response was transferred to procurement or implementing partner agencies without a memorandum of agreement and other supporting documents.
It added that a total of P11.89 billion had remained unobligated as of Dec. 31 last year.
Duque said the DOH is already addressing the concerns raised by the COA and said they had until Sept. 30 to do so.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon called for a Senate inquiry into the deficiencies and poor handling by the DOH of about P67.32 billion funds meant to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We should investigate the Department of Health’s handling of COVID-19 funds. The deluge of deficiencies that the Commission of Audit findings uncovered are alarming and disturbing,” Drilon said.
“It is imperative that we examine closely the DOH’s use of billions of pesos in COVID-19 response funds given the findings of the COA and the corruption allegations that hounded the agency’s procurement of various COVID-19 equipment and supplies,” Drilon said.
“We heard of corruption allegations involving the purchase of PPEs and test kits and these corruption allegations have remained unanswered and unsolved,” he added.
Citing the COA report, Drilon said the Senate should particularly look into the P3.97 billion worth of contracts and projects with procedural deficiencies in the procurement process and lacking documentation.
“This is where unscrupulous individuals or syndicates in the government dip their sticky fingers. We must examine this especially given the corruption allegations that involved the purchase of various COVID-19 equipment and supplies,” Drilon added.
“Who was involved in these purchases? Which agency made the procurement? Where are these people now? Are they still in the government?” he asked.
Drilon said Duque’s ineptitude is sabotaging the government response to the pandemic.
“While we see a shortage of beds, PPEs, ventilators, oxygen tanks, the DOH incurred P24.64 billion in unobligated funds that could have augmented our medical resources and paid on time the risk allowance of our medical frontliners,” Drilon said.
Sen. Leila M. de Lima Said the latest COA findings reveal that the lackluster performance of this government in its pandemic response is to blame for the challenges we encountered.
But Senator Richard Gordon, chairman of the Senate Blue Ribbon committee, said while he was shocked by the COA findings, he is not keen on investigating them.
“We are reviewing it. You know, I don’t want to investigate in the midst of a pandemic because we will lose focus on… the disease,” said Gordon in an interview over CNN.
“But if we have to investigate, we have to do it very, very fast and if they don’t want to cooperate, it will take very long. I don’t want to waste time. I don’t want the doctors, the people running the system to be going out to investigations when they need to be at work,” he added.
“But if we see that what is happening is really bad, then we will have to investigate and heads will roll,” he added.
Senator Grace Poe said the DOH had a lot of explaining to do and said she supported a Senate probe.
“We expect the Senate investigation will help correct these deficiencies, seek accountability and ensure future funds are better managed,” Poe said.
“Instead of being utilized to support and boost the country’s pandemic response, the funds either remained idle or were not properly and immediately used for their purpose,” she said in her resolution seeking for an inquiry.
Sen. Joel Villanueva said the DOH should identify and address its procurement and supply chain choke points that seem to be the subject of the latest COA findings of “deficiencies” in the management of some P67 billion in COVID-19 funds in 2020.
Villanueva said no matter how much funds Congress allotted for the country’s response against the COVID-19 pandemic, it is useless if agencies such as the DOH never get to implement or realize the objectives set forth by such allocations.
“When procurement is choked by inefficiencies, a COVID-19 patient struggling to breathe dies down the line,” Villanueva said.
Former vice president Jejomar Binay also weighed in.
“The effort and sacrifice of our medical frontliners go to waste. They are being led in this uphill battle against a deadly virus by an inefficient and incompetent Health secretary,” Binay said in a statement.
“Imagine billions of pesos in health funds unspent or misspent during a pandemic. This is unpardonable. And yet the Health secretary and other officials will always blame us and our supposed lack of discipline for our predicament. Whenever there is a surge in infections, it’s always our fault, never theirs,” he added.