MANILA (UPDATE) - Several senators on Wednesday called out Health Secretary Francisco Duque III for his "emotional" statements against the Commission on Audit (COA) over its report on alleged irregularities in the health department's use of pandemic response funds.
Duque earlier slammed state auditors for its allegedly "unfair and painful" report highlighting questions on the Department of Health's (DOH) spending of COVID-19 funds, saying it has besmirched his agency's reputation.
"The pandemic is not an excuse to do away with transparency," Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said, noting how the DOH transferred some P42 billion to the procurement service of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) without proper documentation.
"These are unaccounted, unliquidated transfers... are susceptible to corruption as they easily become invisible," Drilon said.
Opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros said that the COVID-19 pandemic should not be a "contest on which agency is most hardworking, most tired or most pitiful."
"Kung may nawarak man ngayong panahon ng pandemiya, ang nawarak ay ang kinabukasan ng milyon milyong ordinaryong mamamayan," she said.
(If there was anything besmirched during this pandemic, it is the future of millions of ordinary citizens.)
Minority Sen. Francis Pangilinan added: "Habang pagod at nagkukumahog ang mga doktor at nurses, napapabalita pa ang bilyong bilyong corruption sa DOH. Nakaka-demoralize talaga."
(While doctors and nurses are tired and scrambling to work, we have these reports of corruption in the DOH. It is really demoralizing.)
Sen. Pia Cayetano reminded the DOH that it is the COA's mandate to review all government agencies' spending and procurement systems to ensure transparency and efficiency in the bureaucracy.
"We cannot declare that they should not be doing that. That is what they are mandated to do," Cayetano said.
"What we can do is to add clarity to that discussion," she said.
Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri also defended the COA, saying the role of state auditors "is essential for good governance."
"We are not here to tear the DOH down. We are here to help the DOH... on how we can spend the money efficiently, effectively," Zubiri said.
"Itong (These) COA reports, allow them to be used as a tool, as a guide on how we can improve our agency," he said.
Sen. Joel Villanueva said the Senate also wants "to listen to the DOH" to understand why there have been several lapses in the country's COVID-19 pandemic response.
"We want to give them time and opportunity to speak up and explain. The bottomline is accountability, pananagutan," he said.
Sen. Ramon "Bong" Revilla Jr. reminded the DOH that it should not be "emotional" when issues within the agency are being flagged by other concerned agencies.
"Hindi ito ang oras para maging emosyonal (This is not the time to be emotional). We need to be rational. We need to be judicious," he said.
Sen. Manny Pacquiao, who earlier alleged corruption in the DOH, praised COA for its dedication and for fulfilling its mandate of exposing possible corruption in the government.
Duque had slammed the COA for its report showing that there have been deficiencies in the way the DOH disbursed some P67 billion in COVID-19 funds.
Among the questionable items the COA flagged were the P42.4 billion fund transfer to the DBM without proper documentation; the planned purchase of 4 laptops amounting to P700,000; and the failure to disburse some P4.8 million in financial assistance to health care workers, among others.
COA Chairperson Michael Aguinaldo earlier said the DOH was given 60 days to act on the COA's recommendations.
Despite issues raised against the DOH, President Rodrigo Duterte said he would not accept Duque's resignation should the health chief decide to step down from his post.
Duterte instead told agencies to snub COA's findings.