By Rose de la Cruz I Published: August 5, 2020
Now more than ever, government has to account for each dollar or peso raised for COVID-19 response measures.
Just as the President angrily acquiesced to the frontliners’ request for a two-week break or quarantine to stem the spread of coronavirus, he told Metro Manila residents, “wala na tayong pera.”
Yet, looking at how quickly and generously the international community and local businesses have shared their resources with the Philippine government to help it cope with the enormous requirements to keep people away from hunger and death, it pains me to think that over P350 billion is all gone and yet the COVID-19 situation has worsened.
Corruption at the PhilHealth
Consider for instance, how the Department of Health gave San Lazaro Hospital healthcare workers 4,000 PPEs (personal protective equipment) fit only for construction, not health, workers.
“Where is the money for PPEs,” decried Maristela Abenojar, president of the Filipino Nurses United told Karen Davila of ANC.
Then, there is ongoing hearing of corruption at the Philippine Health Insurance Corp., which led to the resignations of Thorrson Montes Keith its anti-fraud legal officer and before him executive assistant Etrobal Laborte—who with PhilHealth president Ricardo Morales and board member Alejandro Cabading are among the witnesses to the Senate committee on the whole hearing on the agency.
The corruption involved P1- billion in questionable transactions.
Reprogramming COVID Fund
Rappler, last June, said that as of May 27 at least P353.86 billion had been released from available funds in the two national budgets to cover coronavirus-related measures under the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act (RA 11469), which authorized the President to reallocate, re-program and realign funds for COVID-19.
But at the rate locally-available funds were renamed and acronyms of all sorts were labeled on the COVID-19 funds, asking state auditors to review how these were spent and disbursed is like making them go to a maze of a thousand nomenclatures that only their authors/creators could understand.
Yet, in the interest of public good and credible governance, such an audit is urgent and would serve the country well in obtaining good credit standing with foreign lending institutions to fund its economic recovery goals.
Senate Resolution 479, filed by Senator Risa Hontiveros with six others, is a kick in the right direction considering that for three months since Bayanihan 1 took effect last March 23, there had been cryptic reporting effort —and actual monitoring done— on how these P350 billion Bayanihan funds were disbursed. Bayanihan 1 ended in June, which is why Congress is now rushing to pass Bayanihan 2.
Opening For Corruption
Because the Bayanihan Act allowed the procurement sans bidding (a comparative determinant of price and quality) of materials, supplies, medical facilities, and services used for COVID-19, the floodgate for corruption and shady purchases was flown wide open.
Now everyone, including the senators, has raised suspicions about overpriced purchases, kickbacks and questionable quality of medical supplies, medicines and facilities bought by the health department for COVID-19 response.
Hontiveros cited the importance of the audit findings to guide legislators in their exercise of the power of the purse, so that they would know if the money really went to those in need.”
Hontiveros cited the P4-million for the automated nucleic acid extractors procured by the government against the P1.75 million purchased by the private sector; PPE sets worth P 1,800 each against market price of P400 to P1,000; the importation of “more expensive” RT-PCR test kits from China and Korea while “cheaper Philippine-made ones are gathering dust in laboratories.”
Her resolution also cited the purchase of allegedly overpriced PPE by the Procurement Services of the Department of Budget and Management [PS-DBM] and Philippine International Trading Corporation [PITC] “while many health workers and frontliners have fallen ill from the lack of adequate protective gear.”
“This health crisis should not allow us to relax our accountability measures. The people should be able to trust the government that no one is lining their pockets with taxpayers’ money,” she said. Confirmed cases have risen to 83,673 of which 26,617 have recovered and 1,947 died from COVID.
Last May, Sen. Panfilo Lacson denounced the grossly- overpriced medical supplies for the DOH.
He said that billions of pesos of taxpayers’ money may have lined the pockets of corrupt public officials behind the procurement of overpriced medical supplies.
The “grossly overpriced” supplies included PPE bought by DOH for health workers purchased by the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management.
Sen. Grace Poe earlier disclosed that 1 million sets of PPEs that the DOH bought were “overpriced” by as much as P1.4 billion, which was denied by Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire.
“Initial figures that we obtained indicate grossly overpriced government-purchased health products like nucleic acid extractor and swabbing system for PCR-based tests and PPE, compared to those bought by private foundations and organizations,” Lacson told the Inquirer.
Lacson said the DOH spent $32 for each unit of a swabbing system, which may be bought for $12 at cost from China, or a whopping difference of about 170 percent, citing a source from private sector-led Project ARK (antibody rapid test kits), which was able to buy Sansure swabbing system for $18 to $20.
The PPEs bought by DOH cost twice that of the private groups for their “Good Samaritan” work, Lacson said adding that “while [the country is in] a crisis, someone is trying to take advantage of the opportunity for selfish [reasons] when you should seize the opportunity to help the country during a crisis.”
The International Monetary Fund blog last July 28 said that corruption, the abuse of public office for private gain, erodes the social contract and corrodes the government’s ability to help grow the economy in a way that benefits all citizens.
IMF’s message to all governments is clear: “spend whatever you need but keep the receipts because we don’t want accountability to be lost in the process.”