DOH officials defend fund use, solons rap Duterte attack on COA


HEALTH Secretary Francisco Duque III on Tuesday made an emotional appeal to the public to give the Department of Health (DOH) until next month to account for all the “deficiencies” flagged by the Commission on Audit (COA), saying majority of the COA’s findings have been resolved.

In a hearing of the House Committee on Public Accounts, Duque reiterated that DOH is continuously addressing the compliance issues and deficiencies, adding all the P67.3 billion allotted to it were all spent for the procurement of test kits, PPEs, payment of HCWs benefits and salaries of health-care workers.

The House hearing opened just hours after President Duterte called out the COA for what he deemed its premature release of a report that he claimed cast doubt already on the DOH’s integrity.

His remarks against COA, at his weekly national address late Monday, drew swift reactions from senators and cause-oriented groups, who reminded Duterte the COA is a constitutional body, thus independent of the Executive.

On Monday night, Duterte insisted that the deficiencies flagged by COA did not indicate that any of the P67-billion pandemic-response funds had been stolen.

No corruption—Duque

At the House hearing on Tuesday, Duque reiterated there was no corruption in DOH’s use of Covid-19 funds, and said COA’s report was unfair, because it had not yet responded to the issues.

“Since this COA report came out, I and my fellow officials at DOH could not sleep. We were bludgeoned with this issue. There are so many accusations. This is really unfair, unjust that this judgment has been handed down clearly without giving the DOH the full 60 days,” said Duque.

“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 destroyed the honor of the DOH,” he said.

According to Duque, the department was given 60 days starting July 27, 2021 to submit its Agency Action Plan and Status of Implementation.

“We are awaiting the final reports from our implementing units as to the actions taken with respect to COA’s recommendations. We ask for your continued understanding as we endeavor to meet these demands in extraordinary circumstances, with many of our own [workers] currently confined, quarantined or previously stricken with Covid themselves,” Duque asked lawmakers.

Also, Duque said the COA itself earlier noted that there was no mention of corruption in the audit report, saying the COA recommendations are not yet final.

In the same hearing, Health Undersecretary Leopoldo Vega said there were 13 deficiencies raised in the 2020 COA report.

“Of these deficiencies, five were already complied with, 4 were partially complied with while there are ongoing compliance on the 4,” Vega told lawmakers.

He clarified that these deficiencies will be settled by submission of documents and compliance with procedures.

During Duterte’s public address last Monday, Health Undersecretary Vega said five of the 13 budget issues cited by COA were already addressed by DOH.

He stressed that none of the observations were attributed by state auditors to corruption.

“The foregoing COA findings are more of documentary issues. Some are already resolved while others are ongoing compliance,” Vega explained.

Accounted for

The resolved items include the P11.8-billion unobligated allotments under the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act (Bayanihan 1), Bayanihan to Recover as One Act (Bayanihan 2), and foreign loans as of December 31, 2020.

Of the said fund, P7.1 billion are government funds, which were utilized (P5.1 billion); valid for utilization until the end of the year (P510 million); lapsed with the expiration of Bayanihan 2 (P390 million); adjustments on the utilization for calendar year 2020 as reported by the Department of Budget and Management (P1.09 billion); lapsed with the expiration of Bayanihan 1 (P980 million).

The remaining P4.7-billion unobligated funds are from foreign associated project loans.

DOH is asking for a Special Allotment Release Order from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) to use the said fund this year.

‘Missed opportunities’

Of the P67.3 billion, the COA said that P42.4 billion consisted of fund transfers  to procurement/implementing partner-agencies without the required documentation.

But COA Supervising Auditor Rhodora Ugay said these deficiencies in Covid-19 funds led to “missed opportunities as the agency could have done a lot with the funds.”

She added, “The utilization of this fund should have been imbued with urgency, considering that these are released purposely to address the state of emergency.”

COA Chairman Michael Aguinaldo said the observations and findings made by the COA on the utilization of the budget by the DOH allow the agency to comply with the recommendations and rectify any deficiencies.

Also, Aguinaldo reiterated the report itself does not mention any findings by the auditors of funds lost to corruption, “We have the duty to make sure funds are accounted for.”

“As there are recommendations for compliance by the DOH, the audit process for the deficiencies pointed out has not been completed,” he added.

No authority

Meanwhile, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said on Monday Duterte has no authority to stop the COA from performing its constitutional mandate of safeguarding the utilization of public funds and making public the results of its audit.

Duterte in his weekly briefing last Monday told COA to stop flagging government transactions and publishing its reports, as it would taint agencies with “corruption by perception.”

Lagman said, “Duterte conveniently forgot that COA is an independent constitutional commission which is not accountable to the president,” adding, “The right of the people to information cannot be negated and quashed by invoking that officials should be shielded from corruption by perception.”

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, in a separate statement, cited the need to protect and preserve the COA’s independence. “First, the Commission on Audit is a constitutional body which is independent of the executive or legislative branches of government, and certainly not under the Office of the President of the Republic.”

Lacson lamented that President Duterte was “out of line in publicly castigating the COA,” as it was “just performing its mandate and responsibility to the people and the Constitution.”

The senator added that “the COA should not be cowed by intimidating statements, even those coming from the Chief Executive.”

The Akbayan Party-list made a public exhortation to “the courageous people from COA,” saying they should “ignore Duterte. The people are behind you. We call on the COA to continue performing its constitutional mandate to ensure that the utilization of the people’s funds is free from negligence and corruption.”

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