June 25, 2018

Is Health Sec. Duque doing an Ombudsman Carpio-Morales?

Here’s why I believe Health Secretary Francisco Duque must go.

In May 2018, Department of Health Secretary Francisco Duque suddenly became a very vocal critic of his predecessor Janet Garin when he accused the latter of complicity in an 8.1-billion-peso school-based health center scam that Duque himself claimed to have discovered.

The “news” is shocking at first glance, but a little research shows that Duque is not telling everyone everything, and that’s what we’ll talk about. In this article, I will show you that Duque appears to be using the same strategy that our current Aquino-appointee Ombudsman is using.

What did Conchita do?

The July 2017 ThinkingPinoy article “Conchita's Trojan Horse: Weak Mamasapano cases to provide PNoy immunity?” detailed how Aquino-appointee Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales downgraded charges against the former president when she indicted Aquino only for usurpation of authority instead of homicide for the death of the 44 SAF troopers in Mamasapano, even if there is sufficient evidence to prove the latter, more serious offense.

Zooming forward to June 2018, Carpio-Morales again downgraded charges against PNoy in connection with multi-billion-peso Disbursement Acceleration Program scam when she merely indicted the latter with usurpation of legislative powers, an offense that’s punishable by only up to 6 years in prison.
Aquino and his cohorts have committed so many other wrongdoings during the past administration, but Carpio-Morales turned a blind eye on them.

I will not discuss these anymore because I think I have sufficiently illustrated that Carpio-Morales used her authority as the Ombudsman to protect her ally Aquino at the expense of Public Interest.

And Duque appears to be doing the same right now.

But first, let’s learn a little bit more about Health Secretary Francisco Duque.

Who is Francisco Duque?

Let’s list down the various major government positions that Health Secretary Francisco Duque held over the past couple of decades:
  1. President and CEO of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) from 2001 to 2004. 
  2. Secretary of Health from 2005 to 2009
  3. Chairman of the Civil Service Commission from 2010 to 2015
  4. Consultant to Health Secretary Janet Garin from 2015 to 2016
  5. GSIS Chairman in 2017
  6. Secretary of Health (again) from 2017 to present
Duque, by all means, is a political survivor in that he managed to stay in power through appointive positions in three consecutive administrations: that of PGMA, PNOY, and PRRD.

And we all know “meritocracy” is rare, if not nearly non-existent, in Philippine Government.

Duque is a survivor.

Duque and Dengvaxia

Current Health Secretary Francisco Duque’s first major challenge was the Dengvaxia Scandal that erupted on 30 November 2017, after manufacturer Sanofi admitted a major drug defect that affects a significant but unknown number of vaccine recipients in the Philippines.

Instead of siding with the over 800,000 Filipino victims as expected from a public servant, Duque took an underhanded approach by not-so-subtly defending the vaccine when he said [MB]:
“For those who were not previously infected by the dengue virus, the analysis found that vaccination led to a benefit in preventing severe illness for at least 30 months. In the longer term, severe cases may occur following a subsequent dengue infection among those who were not previously infected.”
The problem here? The 30-month protective period isn’t back by sufficient empirical data, for the simple reason that the vaccine has not been in the mass market long enough to demonstrate such a protective period.

The protective period is interpolated at best, or completely hypothetical at worst. For example, the 63 bodies autopsied by the Public Attorney Office all passed away less than 30 months after their last Dengvaxia dose.

This is not to say that the supposed protective period is entirely fictional, but why would a Secretary of Health, instead of advocating for the victims, defend Big Pharma instead?

Duque not defending Big Pharma?

A deeper look shows that that Duque is not trying to save Big Pharma: he’s instead trying to save his own ass.

Duque was appointed to the Department of Health on 26 October 2017 [CNNph] to replace Paulyn Ubial, who was rejected by the Commission on Appointments.
That is, the botched Dengvaxia program still went on for a full month into Duque’s incumbency as Health Secretary despite:
  1. The Dengvaxia Mass Immunization Program is already controversial within the Healthcare Community even before it was rolled out in April 2016.
  2. There have been several attempts to halt its implementation, with Secretary Paulyn Ubial leading the charge.
  3. The primary reason for Ubial’s CA rejection is her opposition to the Dengvaxia program.
  4. And the primary reason why he got the DoH portfolio is Ubial’s rejection.
With these said, how in the world can Duque be so oblivious about the Dengvaxia issue, when the fact of the matter is that it’s the primary catalyst of his appointment to the Department of Health?

Again, political survival.

Duque and the Commission on Appointments

I initially tried to give Secretary Duque the benefit of the doubt because he was still up for CA confirmation at the time the Dengvaxia scandal broke. Well, I guess his strategy worked because his defense of the Sanofi and his aversion to attributing blame to the Aquino Administration easily earned him a CA nod in early February, with no less than Aquino ally Senator Risa Hontiveros advocating for his confirmation.

Again, I am not saying that he’s an Aquino ally. Instead, I’m saying that he’s a traditional politician whose primary goal is his own political survival.

After his CA confirmation, I expected Duque to take a tougher stance on the Dengvaxia Issue because there is virtually no risk of him losing his DoH post.

However, it has been four months since his confirmation and not even a single Department of Health official has been put under preventive suspension, a non-punitive measure that would have helped keep officials from unduly influencing the Dengvaxia investigations.

This is despite the fact that 99% of officials in the Health Department are holdovers from the past administration.

For example, Assistant Secretary Lyndon Lee-Suy, who is a pro-Dengvaxia advocate and has been in the department since the Aquino-era, is still freely roaming inside the Department of Health.

Instead of acknowledging this shortcoming, Duque had the gall to tell the public that disease outbreaks are possible because people complain about Dengvaxia [GMA].

Where’s Duque’s Logic?

At this point, many Filipinos are wont to think that Duque has lost his mind. My reading, however, is that his actions post-confirmation still makes a lot of sense with respect to his personal interest of political survival.

Duque is hedging. Hedging is a strategy to reduce risk by betting on two or more things at the same time instead of just one.

In this case, Duque is already confirmed and, despite his astounding incompetence, is still within the good graces of President Duterte. As far as I can see, Duterte will not replace him because the president himself said he fires people only on the grounds of corruption. That is, as long as Duque displays only incompetence and not corruption, he should be fine, just like most of the President’s communications team.

Duque’s primary concern, however, is what happens to him AFTER Duterte. He has been in appointive positions since 2001 and he has survived up to now. Now, what will help ensure his appointment to some juicy position in 2022 after Duterte steps down and somebody else takes over?

What if the opposition somehow snags the Presidency? For one, Duterte’s assassination is not impossible as the President himself floated the possibility when he said in April 2018 [AJ]:

“At least, if ever my airplane explodes, or if some roadside bomb explodes, maybe you can ask the CIA.”

In short, Duque’s defense of Dengvaxia is Duque’s defense of the past administration, which is currently the political opposition, whose nominal chairman is Vice President Leni Robredo.

And I think it’s reasonable to say that as Bongbong Marcos’s electoral protest reaches the finish line, the risk of a presidential assassination goes higher and higher.

And Duque, the political survivor, wants to survive a regime change.

Duque found a hairy ball

But to everyone’s surprise, Duque in late May 2018 went to the media with guns blazing, squarely blaming Garin for the multi-billion peso school-based health center scam. Many were impressed, but I wasn’t.

You see, the health center scam has already been reported on 25 December 2017 in the ThinkingPinoy article “#DengGate: Garin’s P4.8-billion botched, overpriced Health Center Project”. The article gained over a million reads and over 56,000 shares on Facebook alone.

Duque cannot claim to have no knowledge of that article because Duque himself went ballistic in a January 2018 PhilHealth Board Meeting when he said nobody should release PhilHealth documents to the public. Philhealth Insiders told me it was in direct reference to my article, which was replete with documents that could have been obtained only by PhilHealth employees.

Duque went on radio silence about the issue until the last several days of May 2018, when he apparently found the balls to take Garin head on.

But a bit of investigation shows that Duque, again, is hedging.

A highly-placed and unassailable source from the Department of Health informed me that only P1.2 of the P8.1-billion has been paid to the contractor as part of the mobilization costs. Mobilization costs are like the down payment that allows a contractor to commence with the project.

Meanwhile, the rest of the funds, amounting to P6.9 billion, is safely deposited in the Department of Health’s savings account at the Land Bank of the Philippines.

How Duque is doing a Carpio-Morales

Garin is faced with two major high-profile issues right now:

1. The Dengvaxia Scandal, which has been the subject of Senate Blue Ribbon Hearings. This scandal is deeply intertwined with the P10.6-billion PhilHealth Fund Scandal that was extensively outlined in "#DengGate: Dear Mr. President, here’s the memo you asked for"

2. The School-based Health Center Scandal, which will be subject to a new set of Senate Blue Ribbon Hearings chaired by Senator Gordon. This scandal is deeply intertwined with the P10.6-billion PhilHealth Fund Scandal that was extensively discussed in "#DengGate: PNoy, Garin, Abad, Padilla almost bankrupted PhilHealth".

As explained in “Garin’s P4.8-billion botched, overpriced Health Center Project”, the contract involved, while highly irregular, does not show direct traces of Garin’s exertion of undue influence for personal gain.

This is in stark contrast to the Dengvaxia Scandal, where Garin connived with several DoH officials to bend the rules, negotiate with Sanofi, and actively influence the government to buy the experimental anti-Dengue vaccine. This has been extensively discussed in the article “Leaked emails show Pnoy, Garin, Hartigan-Go intentionally bent rules for Sanofi”.

In short, Garin will most likely be indicted for the relatively minor crime of technical malversation for the Health Center Scam, as opposed to a potential plunder case stemming from the Dengvaxia Scam.

That is, Duque is hedging: he is grilling Garin for a lesser offense. He is effectively diverting public attention from the Dengvaxia issue where there’s already a preponderance of evidence, to a health center issue where Garin could only get a slap on the wrist at worst.

So it appears that Duque’s attack on Garin does not only make Duque look good in the administration’s eyes, but also to Garin’s because it shifts the attention away from the Dengvaxia issue.

Why’s Duque doing this again? Political survival.

And that is how Francisco is doing a Conchita.

And that, my friends, is the hallmark of a traditional politician. TraPos sometimes bend to public opinion, but Duque relies on appointments and not on elective posts. Hence, negative public opinion matters less to him, as he stays in power as long as he’s ok with the sitting president.

Faced with the biggest Public Health Crisis in recent history, with 64 deaths and counting, do we need a Health Secretary whose primary goal is Political Survival and not Public Safety?

I do not think so.

Mister President, please fire this idiot. [ThinkingPinoy]

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