Hontiveros calls for special audit of gov’t spending on COVID-19 response

JC Gotinga
Six other senators sign the resolution, including Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, and Senator Panfilo Lacson

Senator Risa Hontiveros has called on the Commission on Audit (COA) to review government spending on its COVID-19 response under the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act.

Hontiveros filed a resolution seeking a special audit of the government’s COVID-19 funds on Tuesday afternoon, July 28, and released it to reporters on Wednesday morning, July 29.

Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, Senate finance committee chair Sonny Angara, and senators Panfilo Lacson, Francis Pangilinan, and Leila de Lima also signed the resolution.

“Congress early this year, through the Bayanihan Act, gave the government comprehensive powers, including the power to re-align and allocate billions of taxpayers’ money to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. We need to find out if the assistance did go to those who needed help,” Hontiveros said in a statement.

Hindi dapat pinagkakakitaan ang COVID-19 crisis (The COVID-19 crisis should not be used to profit),” she added. 

In the resolution, the senators urged the COA to present its findings to Congress before it begins deliberating the 2021 national budget.

“We are anticipating massive allocations to address health, economic and social impacts of COVID-19. It is of critical importance that there be audit findings to guide legislators in our exercise of the power of the purse,” Hontiveros said.

President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act was on March 25. It granted him 30 special powers meant to bolster his ability to direct the government’s response to the pandemic. The law temporarily exempted the Executive from legally mandated biddings, enabling it to swiftly procure goods and services for its pandemic response.

“However, various procurements made in relation to COVID-19 have been marred by allegations of overpricing,” Hontiveros said. 

The opposition senator cited the government’s purchase of automated nucleic acid extractors for P4 million, which, she said, private counterparts were able to get for P1.75 million.

The government procured billions of pesos worth of personal protective equipment (PPE) for P1,800 when the market price ranges from P400 to P1,000, Hontiveros said. Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr, chief implementer of the National Action Plan against COVID-19, earlier said the P1,800 PPE sets guaranteed better protection against the coronavirus, while “cheap” PPE sets only gave a “false sense of security” to the wearer.

Alleged overpriced PPE sets were purchased by the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management, and the Philippine International Trading Corporation, Hontiveros said.

“Were there enough funds for PPE? If so, how come they didn’t seem to have reached the frontliners?” Hontiveros said, adding that many health workers have fallen ill from the lack of adequate protective gear.

Hontiveros also noted the importation of “more expensive” RT-PCR or swab test kits from China and South Korea, while similar, less expensive Philippine-made kits “are gathering dust in laboratories.”

“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,” Hontiveros said.

The Bayanihan to Heal as One Act mandates the Executive to submit weekly reports to Congress on the measure’s implementation. The government task force on top of the pandemic response did submit weekly reports to the Legislative until June 22, after the measure lapsed on June 5 upon Congress’ adjournment.

The Executive’s weekly reports contained information on spending, but the amounts were not broken down into individual procurements, and there were no details about suppliers.

Congress resumed session on Monday, July 27, and the Senate passed the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act or “Bayanihan 2” a day after. The House of Representatives is expected to pass its version soon. Bayanihan 2 extends the effectivity of Duterte’s 30 special powers until September 30.

Bayanihan 2 allots P140 billion for executive agencies’ pandemic assistance programs and efforts to resuscitate the flagging economy. –

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.