Unhealthy health department
Something is rotten in the Department of Health (DOH). Thus, the announced Senate probe on what’s ailing the frontline agency tasked to promote the health and well-being of every Filipino could not be more urgent.
The DOH is being pummeled by multiple grave controversies at this critical juncture when resolute and credible leadership is demanded amid acute public health concerns such as the dengue and measles outbreaks, the unabated rise in the number of cases of HIV/AIDS, and the still-patchy implementation of the Reproductive Health Act of 2012.
The Commission on Audit recently flagged the agency for what can only be described as criminal wastage: over P18 billion worth of drugs and medicine stocked inside the DOH’s warehouses, a significant portion of which were near their expiry dates. Worse, over P30 million worth of drugs and medicine distributed to various centers for health development, treatment for rehabilitation centers and hospitals had already expired.
“Many Filipinos, for lack of money, can’t buy medicine or are undermedicating themselves. And then they read reports about drugs in some government warehouses going to waste,” lamented Sen. Sonny Angara, who filed the Senate resolution calling for the probe.
The DOH is also plagued by continuing fraud involving the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth). In a privilege speech, Sen. Panfilo Lacson charged that the state-run PhilHealth, massively funded to extend public health insurance and health care services to all Filipinos, is “bleeding dry.”
Citing overpayments to hospitals and clinics by as much as “100-fold to 700-fold higher than their actual hospital charges,” Lacson warned that “the financial health of PhilHealth is fast deteriorating and, in fact, in a state of coma. The policies in place engender fraud and corruption and the crooks exploit the system.”
Among these recipients of excess payments is WellMed Dialysis and Laboratory Center Corp., which had been earlier exposed for, among others, continuing to collect from PhilHealth for long-dead patients.
While PhilHealth officers have claimed that payments to WellMed were cut as early as January 2019 following reports of anomalies, Lacson said it remained “business as usual” between the two entities, with WellMed still receiving some P4.24 million in reimbursements from PhilHealth in the first six months of the year — P1.224 million in June alone.
In fact, “Not only did WellMed continue to receive payments,” said Lacson, “it was also paid in record speed, with turnaround time as short as two days at the time when the fraud was already made public.”
Adding to the already full plate of misconduct at the PhilHealth is the mess at the top following the plunder raps filed against Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and his brother Gonzalo.
The case involves lease contracts that PhilHealth entered into with Educational and Medical Development Corp. (EMDC), where the Duque brothers own shares — constituting, on the face of it, a clear case of conflict of interest.
Data obtained by Lacson showed that PhilHealth had rented a building owned by EMDC from June 2012 to December 2018, with six-figure monthly rentals rising over the period. According to documents, Duque was among the eight stockholders of the company, all of whom are from the Duque clan.
What appears to be an even more disturbing case of conflict of interest involves Doctors Pharmaceuticals Inc., a drug manufacturing company owned by, again, the family of Duque.
The company has been actively bidding for government contracts, primarily with the DOH, since 2005, and has supposedly continued to operate despite cease and desist and product recall orders for failure to comply with good manufacturing practices.
The Senate probe should be a good opportunity for the DOH to clear the air on the controversies besetting it and commit to reforms.
As the government is about to fully implement the Universal Health Care Act, which aims to provide a full spectrum of health services to all Filipinos — and as the Duterte administration publicly contemplates bringing back Dengvaxia, the controversial dengue vaccine that has divided the nation, to address the dengue crisis — it becomes even more vital for the DOH leadership to be subjected to the highest standards of professionalism, integrity and ethics.
The country cannot afford a weakened, distracted DOH wracked by accusations of grave misconduct, incompetence and graft and corruption. To do its mission well, the health department first needs to heal itself.
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