The corruption in the Department of Health (DOH) recently unearthed has actually been going on since 2013, although it has worsened in the last three years.

So said Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who added that a mafia-like operation has been entrenched within the Health department which cost taxpayers some PHP2.73 billion (about US$46 million) via purchases of too many medicines that are almost or already expired.

During a Senate Blue Ribbon committee hearing on the DOH’s misuse of funds last week, Lacson cited Commission on Audit (COA) findings that overstocked medicines were simply left to expire without being distributed where they are needed.

Lacson said the annual purchases of never used medicines worsened during the term of Health Sec. Francisco Duque III.

Lacson said there was reason to believe that a “well-entrenched mafia” at the DOH had been operating, regardless of administration.

He said Duque should probe the mess once and for all, “unless you’ve been co-opted” by the syndicate.

Lacson said the secret organization within the DOH was “not yet disbanded, not yet uprooted, not yet extracted” and continued to operate.

Although Lacson had been leading the call for Duque’s resignation for the past few years, the fortunes of the Health secretary took a turn for the worse last week when President Rodrigo Duterte – who had been one of his staunchest defenders – said he would accept Duque’s resignation if it was submitted “voluntarily.” The President had previously said he believed Duque should not resign because the Health secretary had “done nothing wrong.”

Duterte said he would stand by Duque even if it caused his own downfall.

This week, however, administration senators Bong Go and Imee Marcos said it was best for all concerned if Duque were to resign now.

Go said Duque had done a good job but it was now time for him to rest.

Earlier during the Senate hearings, Duque came close to shedding tears, admitting that the accusations of corruption levelled against him had taken its toll.

Blue Ribbon chairman Sen. Richard Gordon advised him to seek psychiatric help, which was available in the DOH.

During his presentation before the Blue Ribbon panel, Lacson pointed out that the overstock of medicines valued at PHP2.2 billion (US$44 million) was recorded in the Health department’s 2019 inventory.

State auditors called the medicines as an “indiscriminate wastage of government funds and resources.”

Despite the apparent overstocking of medicines, the DOH continued to purchase additional stocks as of last year to the tune of PHP96.68 million (US$1.933 million), with around PHP6 million (US$120,000) in its inventory already expired.

Lacson said, “Year in, year out, we are wasting hundreds of millions of pesos.”

In his defense, Duque said the DOH had its own standards of procurement of medicines, adding that there was even a need to update the current inventory.

Lacson lambasted Duque for failing to scrutinize his department’s procurement systems, resorting instead to “theoretical and hifalutin words to go about it.”

The COA report also stated that “concrete steps” to improve its procurement procedures was needed to be taken by the Health department.

Duque said he would “call for an investigation” over Lacson’s accusations.

The Senator, however, reminded Duque that he had already promised to address the issue during his confirmation hearings back in 2018.

It was not only the overstocking of expiring medicines that Lacson questioned. The Senator – who is running for president in next year’s elections – also questioned the DOH’s Health Facilities Enhancement Program, which reportedly had more than PHP18 billion (US$360 million) in “deficiencies.”

Lacson’s presentation showed that PHP1.76 billion (US$35.2 million) had gone to waste in 2015; PHP1.50 billion (US$30 million) in 2016; PHP4.09 billion (US$81.8 million) in 2017; PHP4.55 billion (US$91 million) in 2018; PHP3.82 billion (US$76.4 million) in 2019; and PHP2.83 billion (US$56.6 million) in 2020.

Duque said he would call for a review of all the contracts related to the program.