State auditors found "various deficiencies" amounting to P67.3 billion in the health department's funds that led to "missed opportunities" in the country's pandemic response.
This was contained in the audit report on the Department of Health (DOH) for 2020, released on Wednesday, August 11.
"Various deficiencies involving some P67,323,186,570.57 worth of public funds and intended for national efforts of combating the unprecedented scale of the COVID- 19 crisis were noted," the COA report said.
"These deficiencies contributed to the challenges encountered and missed opportunities by the DOH during the time of state of calamity/national emergency, and casted doubts on the regularity of related transactions," it added.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, however, said the funds had been "fully accounted for," having been spent for the procurement of test kits, personal protective equipment, payment of health care workers' benefits, salaries of human resources for health, among others."
The report noted that the DOH made P5 billion worth of purchases but without documenting the procurement.
Some P11.9 billion supposed to "strengthen the Department's capacity to address the COVID-19 pandemic" were appropriated but not committed to any contracts.
"This condition affects the efficient utilization of COVID-19 funds vis-a-vis the agency's implementation capabilities and its response to the urgent healthcare needs during the time of calamity/state of emergency," the COA report said.
Aside from this, state auditors noted that some P69.9 million worth of medical equipment and supplies for COVID-19 remained unutilized.
Some P275.9 million that were distributed to personnel in the form of cash allowances, gift certificates, and grocery items were found to be "inconsistent with the provisions" of the law and lacked "sufficient" legal basis.
Meanwhile, P1.405-billion worth of in-kind donations were "not properly accounted" due to the failure to submit required documents.
The COA report noted that the deficiencies in management of Interim Reimbursement Mechanism (IRM) amounting to P734.5 million were "counter-beneficial to the government's thrust of providing medical relief to medical facilities in time of COVID-19 health emergency."
State auditors said that the deficiencies were caused by "non-compliance of pertinent laws, rules and regulations." DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III, by default, sits as the chairperson of the country's Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID).
The officials were reminded to "act with urgency and efficiency" in the utilization of COVID-19 funds. They also directed Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and other concerned officials to "address the challenges and roadblocks" in the efficient use of COVID-19 funds and come up with proper courses of action.
In a statement on Wednesday, Health Secretary Duque said the flagged P63.7 billion COVID-19 funds were "accounted for."
"Wala pong kinurakot. Inilaan natin ang mga pondong ito para sa ating mga kababayan (No corruption was done. We allotted the funds to our countrymen). The flagged issues are being addressed by the DOH," Duque said.
"Rest assured, that the funds allotted to the DOH are all spent for the procurement of test kits, PPEs, payment of HCWs benefits, salaries of HRH among others," he added.
The DOH explained that of the P79.7 billion COVID-19 funds received by the agency based on COA reports, P68.9 billion were utilized as of December 31, 2020 for the pandemic response.
"With the enactment of RA No. 11519 extending the availability of appropriations under Bayanihan II, the Department was still able to utilize the unobligated balance for this year," the agency said.
Duque said the DOH is open and ready to show the public how the funds were used.
"We take our COA findings very seriously and have been working to further improve our processes and controls so that we can serve the public most effectively especially during this pandemic," he added.
More than a year into the pandemic, the Philippines is still struggling to contain the deadly virus that has so far infected 1.6 million and killed over 29,000 of its population. The government has been criticized for its laggard response to the health crisis.
Lawmakers, both in the House and Senate, have called for the resignation of Duque. The health secretary, however, still enjoys the trust of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Duque in December 2020 was embroiled in a controversy for allegedly "dropping the ball" in the negotiation with Pfizer for their COVID-19 vaccines, thus delaying the country's procurement. Duque denied the allegation, saying that there were systems and protocols in place in vaccine deals. – Rappler.com