Ubial deserves confirmation
By today, we would know the fate of three Cabinet members facing confirmation before the Commission on Appointments. The three are: Rafael Mariano of agrarian reform, Judy Taguiwalo of social welfare and development, and Paulyn Jean Ubial of health.
Of the three, Ubial would seem to be the least controversial. She is a purebred “DOH baby,” having joined the department directly after graduating with a medical degree from the UE Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Medical Center. Ubial has served the Department of Health for 28 years in various capacities, initially as a rural health volunteer in Kidapawan, North Cotabato, and working under 13 secretaries and six presidents, starting with Cory Aquino. She was an assistant secretary when she was appointed by President Duterte last year, although her best “qualification” for office is that she has personally known the President since she served as DOH regional director in Davao City from 2006 to 2008.
While Mariano is facing opposition for his very controversial views on agrarian reform and thereby earning the ire of big landowners (including the Cojuangco family of Hacienda Luisita), and Taguiwalo is looked on suspiciously because of her leftist connections (not to mention her being “na-ano lang” as a single mother), Ubial is thought of as decidedly uncontroversial. Susy Pineda-Mercado, who now works with the World Health Organization and was once DOH undersecretary and chief of staff of the late health secretary Quasi Romualdez, has nothing but praise for her. “She is hardworking and reliable,” Pineda-Mercado said of Ubial in an earlier interview. So much so, it seems, that Ubial was put in charge of the Sentrong Sigla Movement, which had been the Estrada administration’s flagship health program that sought to raise the quality of health delivery services through the accreditation and recognition of outstanding health centers.
Through the years, I’ve also known her as an impassioned advocate for women’s and children’s health.
Perhaps this is what fuels those opposed to her confirmation, said to be led by Sen. Tito Sotto, the punster of the “na-ano lang” quip and a long-time foe of reproductive health. But if fidelity to service and commitment to public health—including reproductive health—are given short shrift in the face of political accommodation, what a blow it would be for rank-and-filers in the DOH, who must see in Ubial a role model.
Right now, what puts the secretary-designate in the limelight is the decision—by an expert panel of the DOH and not hers personally—to discontinue the vaccination program for dengue. While dengue is a major public health concern here, the vaccine has yet to be tested extensively before it was approved for use; and at $20 per dose (three doses are needed for complete lifetime protection), is expensive. Among the questions that have to be settled first before the program is fully implemented, said Ubial, are: “Is it cost-effective? Will it answer the public’s health concerns?”
Another issue that some sectors of the media have raised against Ubial is the fate of former PhilHealth OIC Hildegardes Dineros who resigned after a special board meeting of PhilHealth chaired by the secretary. As Ubial puts it, Dineros, a bariatric surgeon, announced his resignation after board members questioned him for questionable actions, including the transfer of 43 officials and employees.
In person, Ubial strikes one as extremely low-key. But as the dengue vaccine and Dineros ouster show, she can put her foot down and take the necessary risks when these are called for.
Though a confirmation would be well-deserved, Ubial says her nonconfirmation would not be the career-ending event it would be for others.
“If I am not confirmed,” she told the Bulong Pulungan at Sofitel, “I am willing to return to the DOH and serve the new secretary.” Astonishing indeed in this time of shameless self-promotion, but all of a piece with a true child of the public health sector.