Senator says DOH underspent 31% of pandemic funds

Bella Perez-Rubio - Philstar.com
Senator says DOH underspent 31% of pandemic funds
File photo shows Health Secretary Francisco Duque III.
The STAR / Mong Pintolo

MANILA, Philippines — Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon on Wednesday said the Department of Health failed to spend some P24 billion that could have been used to bolster the government's response to COVID-19. 

He said this at a Senate Blue Ribbon Committee probe on the "deficiencies" flagged by state auditors in the DOH's handling of P67.32 billion in pandemic funds.

“It appears to me that the DOH tried to mask its huge unobligation rate and its inefficiency by transferring P42 billion to [the procurement service of the Department of Budget and Management," Drilon said. "In effect, this fund transfer minimized, on paper, the DOH’s underspending of COVID-19 funds."

“These transfers raise red flags as these are unaccounted or unliquidated transfers," he added. "These are most susceptible to corruption as they easily become invisible." 

In addition to the P11.98 billion allotment flagged by COA as unobligated, Drilon noted that around P12 billion from the P42 billion "parked" by the DOH at the PS-DBM remained unutilized. 

This means, he added, that the health department underspent by 31.17% or P24 billion of its total P77 billion COVID-19 funds for 2020. 

“Is it criminal to underspend in the face of a pandemic? How many oxygen tanks can be bought for P24 billion?" Drilon asked partially in Filipino. "How many frontliners can be given an increase in their special risk allowance? How many PPEs and test kits can we buy for P24 billion?" 

Procurement of overpriced face masks, shields questioned 

Drilon further scrutinized the P42 billion transferred by the DOH to the PS-DBM, questioning if these same funds were used to buy the overpriced face masks and face shields flagged by state auditors. 

“Does the P42 billion include the purchase of face masks which according to the COA were purchased at P27.22 per piece and face shields which cost P120 per piece. Are these items not too expensive?" he said in Filipino. 

"Who ordered the DOH to hand over P42 billion to the PS-DBM? Why [are] there no memorandum of agreements? Have the funds been spent? How many [sets of personal protective equipment], test kits and ventilators have been procured? Who was the supplier?" Drilon further questioned. 

State auditors defended 

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III maintains that none of the funds flagged by COA were lost to corruption.

At a hearing held by a lower house panel on Tuesday, the controversial health chief railed against state auditors who he said "wrecked" the reputation of his department. Duque also claimed that COA was "unfair" and "unjust" and did not give the DOH adequate time to respond to its findings before releasing them to the public. 

President Rodrigo Duterte, who previously said his most pressing goal before the end of his term was to rid the government of corruption, cursed at state auditors during a televised address earlier this week. He also told COA to refrain from "flagging" government transactions and programs as "it will condemn the agency or the person." 

These sentiments were chided by several senators on Thursday.

"We will not shoot the messenger here. COA has to be respected because it balances any possibility of abuse, corruption, fraud [and] waste," said Sen. Richard Gordon who chairs the Blue Ribbon Committee. 

"Sorry, Sec. Duque, I do not agree with your statement that you were wronged," he further told the health chief. "COA has done their duty and you were given the opportunity to respond and fix the anomalies found in your department." 

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