After getting weeks of a “runaround” before the lockdown in March during their initial investigation, Ombudsman Samuel Martires said on Friday his office has officially ordered the Department of Health (DOH) to turn over documents related to its investigation of the alleged irregularities in the government’s response to the new coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
A subpoena sent to the DOH has ordered Health Secretary Francisco Duque III to hand over the special allotment release orders of the cash benefits intended for the families of frontliners who died or were infected with SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus that causes the severe respiratory ailment, Martires said.
Earlier, Senator Franklin Drilon was quoted as saying, questioning the DOH figures in the COVID-19 data, asking if the figures were allegedly being “manipulated”, as some of the tallies don’t add up with the other sources.
The Senate earlier also questioned the significant price differences of the testing kits, ranging from P2,500 to as high as P8,000 per testing kit on COVID, even as the function and quality of each one are just the same.
The Ombudsman also ordered the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado to submit the same related documents.
President Rodrigo Duterte was mad due to the delay in the compensation of the frontliners, which was mandated by the Bayanihan law.
“We want to know where and how this money was used, and how long it took for the bereaved families of front-liners who died to get cash aid. Where is the money?” Martires said.
Martires said the broader investigation of the government’s response to the pandemic started as a “discreet” probe early in March of the DOH’s treatment of the coronavirus test kit developed by the University of the Philippines National Institutes of Health (UP-NIH).
“We were wondering why the DOH was giving them the cold shoulder, it was as if it was politicized,” Martires said, answering the question of what triggered the investigation.
Instead of buying locally developed and cheaper test kits from UP scientists, the DOH opted to buy 100,000 more expensive test kits from a foreign supplier, he said.
Martires said that Ombudsman investigators were ignored and given the “runaround by the DOH.”
“We first called the office of Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire. But her executive assistant directed us to call the RITM (Research Institute for Tropical Medicine), which was where Secretary Francisco Duque was holding office,” Martires said.
He said the Office of the Ombudsman merely requested documents, which could be released by a clerk.
“We started before March 15, but the lockdown caught up with us, which was why the investigation was stalled,” Martires said.
In January, the UP-NIH announced that it had developed a kit to test for the virus that was much cheaper than those available in the market at the time.
However, instead of immediately purchasing these kits, the DOH subjected it to multiple tests, Martires said. The UP kits were only approved for use in April. But a month after, in May, the RITM recalled UP’s test kits due to supposed “minor problems” detected during validation, he said.
The DOH then explained that locally developed kits had to pass field validation tests.
Vergeire at that time said that it was the UP-NIH that recalled all of its test kits in order to correct defects identified by the RITM.
Manila HealthTek Inc., which manufactured the UP-NIH kits, had said it was set to deliver to various hospitals kits that were capable of conducting 26,000 tests.
Each UP kit costs P1,320 while foreign-made kits cost around P8,000.
Martires disputed Vergeire’s claim that the investigation would interfere with the DOH’s work in fighting the pandemic.
He said other aspects of the DOH’s coronavirus response would also be investigated by the DOH, including where funds were used.
Among the issues that the Ombudsman will look into are the DOH’s delayed procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers.
Martires said he was not satisfied with how the government was handling the health crisis and that the DOH’s daily tally of cases was not specific enough, which was suspicious.
“The way things are going, it is as if they are hiding something,” he said.
Vergeire, the DOH spokesperson on matters related to COVID-19, on Friday said health officials would cooperate with the Ombudsman’s investigation.
In an online briefing, she said they have not yet received any “formal communication” from the Ombudsman but added that “we are now preparing for this.”
“If they think they were given the runaround, we were just observing processes … because it was referred to the concerned unit of the DOH,” Vergeire said.
Despite the low morale among DOH employees caused by the Ombudsman’s investigation, Vergeire said Duque still enjoyed their “full support.”
“We do not see the need yet for him to resign or to temporarily stop working to give way to this investigation,” she added.
To ensure an impartial probe, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian urged Duque on Thursday to go on leave, saying that would be the “most appropriate thing” for the health chief to do.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III on Friday said Duque should shield the President from corruption allegations by stepping down.
“It’s his call. He should save the President from any predicament or responsibility [regarding] his tenure,” Sotto said in a Viber message.
“If he cares for the President, he should spare the President the agony and trouble of deciding … what to do with him,” he added.
However, Vergeire said health officials were only able to perform their jobs because of Duque’s leadership.
“I hope people will understand that the undersecretaries are able to do their job because we have a leader like Secretary Duque. A leader is very important in an organization because even if he just sits there but is respected and is able to give confidence to his people, I think those under him become good at their jobs,” Vergeire said./Stacy Ang