BHS, Dengvaxia funding packaged

Senator Joseph Victor Ejercito (middle) chairman of the committee of Health and Demography, talks with former Health Secretary Janette Garin and her husband, Iloilo 1st District Representative Richard Garin, on Wednesday (July 4, 2018) before the Senate hearing on the alleged irregularities in the Barangay Health Station Project of the Department of Health. (PNA photo)

By Leila Marie Rodriguez and Mario J. Mallari

On Dec. 29, 2015 the last working day for that year, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad released a single document containing two special allotment release orders (SARO) for the funding of the P3.5-billion Dengvaxia immunization program and the P8.1-billion program for the setting up of barangay health stations (BHS) pointing to the packaging of both programs, a Senate probe found yesterday.

The probe established circumstances that prove the administration of former President Benigno Aquino used the Department of Health (DoH) as a milking cow to raise campaign funds for the 2016 elections.

The twin projects were implemented a few months prior to the campaign period of the 2016 polls.

Senate health committee chairman Joseph Victor Ejercito said the two projects totaling P11.6 billion were both rushed for the 2016 elections.

“Since the SARO were released Dec. 29, 2015 which was the last day of 2015, so Dengvaxia and the BHS came together. Actually it was only one page (for both SARO),” Ejercito told reporters after the hearing, when asked for the possible connection of the project with the 2016 polls.

“Obviously, [the BHS was] also done in haste. The funding release was fast. And what was obvious there is that it was done at the same time as Dengvaxia.,” Ejercito said.

Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III also noticed the same date the SARO for both projects were released which he said should have been a red flag for the previous administration.

DAP-like diversions

Health Undersecretary Roger Tong-An recounted the sequence of events that led to the implementation of the two questionable projects including the approval of the SARO.

After the SARO was issued, the funds for the project were sourced from the 2015 Miscellaneous Personnel Benefits Fund (MPBF).

The MPBF was also the favorite source of diversions of fund from the budget to augment the notorious Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) that the Aquino administration created supposedly as a stimulus fund.

The SC in 2014 declared Executive actions creating the DAP as unconstitutional.

Sotto, during the testimony, interrupted Tong-An and asked him for the SARO numbers of the BHS and the immunization projects.

It turned out the BHS and the anti-Dengvaxia projects have consecutive SARO numbers.

SARO on same date

“So this was released December 29? As far as I can remember, it was the same release date for the Dengvaxia (immunization funding),” Ejercito said during the hearing.

“It’s too much of a coincidence because it’s the same date,” Ejercito added.

Just like the Dengvaxia vaccine program, the P8.1-billion BHS project was initiated during the time of former DoH Secretary Janette Garin under the Aquino administration.

Both projects were also funded through government savings, through budget realignment.

Ejercito noted in a January 2015 letter of Garin, she already hinted that there would be funds for the BHS even outside GAA.

Abad up for grilling

The senator said he is inclined to invite former Budget Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad to the next hearing to shed light on the matter.

At the same time, Ejercito said Garin is not yet off the hook in the controversial DoH projects.

“I am not yet satisfied, she needs to explain further,” Ejercito said.

Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, on the other hand, noted like the BHS project, the P3.5-billion fund for Dengvaxia was also sourced from the MPBF.

“What was the real intention of this fund?” Gatchalian said of the MPBF, noting the huge fundings for BHS and Dengvaxia came from the said budget.

“Why is the (MPBF) funds so huge but these appeared to have been used sparingly and later on transferred to projects other than those specified (in the budget), which looks (intended for) personal benefit,” he said.

“It is becoming dangerous that Congress allocated the funds but the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) used these for another purpose,” he said.

BHS project flawed

Another proof that the two projects were rushed was Health Secretary Francisco Duque’s testimony that the BHS project was “flawed from the start.”

Duque also pointed to “poor planning” in the two-phase BHS project awarded to JBROS Construction Corp.

Similarly, Duque had stated in an earlier Senate inquiry that the purchase of the anti-dengue vaccine Dengvaxia from French pharmaceutical firm Sanofi Pasteur was also rushed.

“There was poor planning right from the start…it was marked with a lot of irregularities so to speak or deficiencies,” Duque said.

Ejercito maintained that while the objective of the BHS project was “very good,” the implementation was bad.

“The way I see it right now, the problem was the execution and implementation,” Ejercito said.

Garin defends project

Aquino’s Health Secretary Janette Garin insisted there was nothing irregular in the BHS project.

Former Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial, however, sided with Duque as she noted the apparent rush in the implementation of the BHS project.

“Never did we have such a huge project given in a year,” Ubial said.

“We did not have national bidding, it was done per region…for such a huge project in such a manner it was planned and executed in a very short time with only one contractor, really unimaginable at that point in time,” Ubial said.

Apart from the “blame game” among the present and former DoH officials, it was found out that there were instances when there was no actual land to erect a BHS or there were problems on right of way, while there were completed units torn down.

p: wjg