Duque, health officials deny existence of ‘DOH mafia’

Mara Cepeda
Duque, health officials deny existence of ‘DOH mafia’
At the Commission on Appointments hearing of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, they also reject the allegation that P550 million meant for the purchase of the Dengvaxia vaccine was pocketed

MANILA, Philippines – Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Francisco Duque III denied the existence of a “mafia-like” group of officials operating in the department that supposedly had benefited from the implementation of the now-suspended dengue vaccination program.

Duque was confronted by Senator Gregorio Honasan II with the corruption allegations against the DOH as Duque faced the Commission on Appointments (CA) on Wednesday, January 31.

Honasan is the chairperson of the CA committee on health.

“Is there a mafia or a syndicate that is part of the institutional damage that has plagued the department cumulatively in the last so many years that benefits from any program or transaction?” asked Honasan.

Duque denied the allegation, previously publicized by former DOH consultant Francis Cruz without the proper documentary evidence. Duque previously dared the DOH officials’ accuser to file the appropriate cases in court.

“Your honor, as far as I am concerned, and given that I am only in the Department of Health the second time for the last 3 and a half months, I see no evidence, documents that would point to the existence of a mafia in the DOH,” said Duque.

Prior to his appointment by President Rodrigo Duterte in October 2017, Duque was former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s health chief from June 2005 to January 2010.

The DOH mafia issue first came to light after French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur announced its Dengvaxia vaccine may cause a person to develop severe dengue if he or she had not been infected by the virus before immunization.

Dengvaxia was the vaccine used when former DOH chief Janette Garin launched the program in April 2016, despite strong opposition from health professionals.

Duque immediately suspended the program after Sanofi’s advisory, but more than 837,000 kids already got the risky vaccine.

‘No conversion of P550 million’

During the hearing, Honasan also asked Duque to name two DOH officials who can corroborate his statement to the CA.

Duque called Undersecretary Carol Taiño as well as Financial and Management Service Director Larry Cruz. The two officials, who have been with the DOH for decades now, were implicated in the so-called DOH mafia.

But Duque attested to their credibility, arguing that Taiño and Cruz were among the officials who helped the DOH achieve the Integrity Development Action Plan set by the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission from 2005 to 2010.

Taiño prepared a presentation to answer Cruz’s allegation that the supposed DOH mafia converted P550 million from the P3.5-billion budget originally set for the purchase of the Dengvaxia vaccine vials and divided the money among themselves.

“So was there a P550-million conversion? We categorically say there is no mafia in the DOH nor any conversion of the P550 million,” she said.

Taiño explained that the DOH only disbursed P3 billion to the Philippine Children’s Medical Center (PCMC) to purchase the dengue vaccine, as it was the price agreed upon after the bidding conference.

“So for the undisbursed fund, the P556 million was not converted and remained outstanding and undisbursed in the DOH in favor of PCMC. This is certified and verified by the finance director and the COA (Commission on Audit) resident auditor and her staff, respectively,” she said.

PCMC executive director Julius Lecciones was previously put on the hot seat at a Senate probe into the dengue immunization program for signing the procurement papers for P3 billion worth of Dengvaxia vaccine vials. – Rappler.com

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Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.