DOH execs try to shift blame during House briefing on audit findings

Xave Gregorio - Philstar.com

MANILA, Philippines — Officials of the Department of Health engaged in finger pointing at the House inquiry on the Commission on Audit’s findings of “deficiencies” in the health agency’s spending of P67.32-billion of funds allotted for its response to COVID-19.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and Undersecretary Leopoldo Vega both shifted blame to various reasons for the DOH’s failure to use up all the funding allocated for allowances of healthcare workers.

For Vega, the human resource departments of private hospitals and DOH’s regional offices are the reasons that not all healthcare workers at the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic received allowances as mandated by the two Bayanihan laws.

But Rep. Stella Luz Quimbo (Marikina) was quick to remind Vega that it was the DOH that told the congressional bicameral conference committee that there were some 562,000 healthcare workers who should receive additional pay for their service.

In the end, Quimbo pointed, the DOH only paid allowances to around 384,000 healthcare workers.

“Who dropped the ball? Saan tayo nagkulang? (Where did we falter?)” Quimbo pressed.

"Dropped the ball" is a common idiom but has also been associated with the Department of Health after talk in December 2020 that negotiations with the US for 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine fell through because of delays on the Philippine side.

Vega then said there is a computation for the special risk allowance which factors in the number of days healthcare workers served in the frontlines, which is supposedly the reason that not everyone received allowances.

“Sa nasusunog na bahay, ‘yung DOH ang bumbero, hihintayin niya na humingi ng saklolo sa loob? ‘Yun naman ay hindi acceptable sa akin,” Quimbo quipped after Vega’s explanation.

(In a burning house where the DOH is the fireman, does it wait for people inside to call for help? That is not acceptable to me.)

Duque would later  try to pin the blame on COA, whom he said set the rules for special allowances.

COA chairperson Mike Aguinaldo, however, said that the state auditing agency can relax its requirements.

“If there are issues on COA requirements, dahil kung mayroong (if there are) some requirements perhaps not apt under the present circumstances, pwede naman kami sulatan at tanungin kung pwedeng i-relax ang ibang mga requirements (they can write to us and ask us if we can relax other requirements),” Aguinaldo said.

Duque turns emotional

The inquiry was set off by the COA’s annual audit report which found “deficiencies” in P67.32 billion of the DOH’s spending on the COVID-19 response.

READ: What COA flagged in DOH's handling of billions in COVID-19 funds

At the start of the hearing, Duque again stressed that there was no corruption involved in these transactions and noted that they are working to address the items flagged by the COA.

Duque also turned emotional during the congressional inquiry, saying that he has lost sleep since the release of the COA report and that the state audit agency “wrecked” the reputation of the DOH.

“I think COA should also consider that we are not operating under normal circumstances. We’re operating under a state of public health emergency. Winarat niyo na kami eh. Winarat niyo ang dangal ng DOH,” the health chief said. 

(I think COA should also consider that we are not operating under normal circumstances. We’re operating under a state of public health emergency. You wrecked us. You wrecked the dignity of the DOH.)

He continued by saying that it was “unfair” and “unjust” for the COA to come out with its findings when it supposedly did not give the health department enough time to respond to these. The audit commission did give the DOH time as well as an extension.

The COA gives government agencies the whole year to submit documents. In the case of the DOH, the COA gave it until the June 30 exit conference to submit documents, but the health agency missed this deadline. COA said the health department can still submit its supporting documents despite the lapsed deadline.

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