Press Release
August 25, 2021


Q: Let's start with this-- the President has decided he will run for vice president. How would you describe that?

Senator Risa Hontiveros (SRH): Sabi ko nga, e di wow. Every party has its own nomination process, but it seems some gatekeepers in PDP-Laban have turned Ka Nene Pimentel's original party into a zombie, an institution only performing rituals devoid of substance and principle. This recent development is an even more grotesque version of Shake, Rattle, and Roll. The President started his presidential run with a lot of drama, and it looks like he'll be leaving us the same way, trying to confuse us, and we, the Filipino people, still searching for a true leader.

Q: But don't you think it's quite strategic frankly on the part of PDP-Laban, and even the President, with him declaring that he will run, you will have a lot of local officials that will not know who to support. Local officials will want to support the winning team because their funds depend on it for future projects, right? So frankly speaking, I've spoken to some senators and some local officials and what the president has done and PDP-Laban has done is number one: it has prevented their own members from supporting another candidate, which is quite typical in the Philippines, and it has put a lot of local government officials, they can't plan anything and those who want to run now are held back from actually running. Because who would want, frankly, to compete with the President of the Philippines?

SRH: But of course, they'd have to remember kung itutuloy ni Presidente nitong plano nila, he would be running for reelection to the presidency but, sabi niya, at sabi ng partido niya, as vice president. Hindi natin alam sino magiging presidential candidate nila. And the president's popularity until now is not transferable in the same scale to any other candidate. At saka in fairness sa mga local government officials, I'm sure at the back of their minds din, sa susunod na taon, 2022, hindi lang iyan taon ng eleksyon, taon iyan na ma-ooperationalize na ang Mandanas ruling, when a greater amount of IRA funds will flow to them at mas makakadesisyon sila especially in terms of the direction of their development program. So kahit papaano, that's a degree of greater autonomy from the national government.

Q: Hindi dapat matakot ang local government officials from choosing and supporting their own candidate?

SRH: I hope they would take heart in that promise of autonomy of the local government code to their LGUs. Sana madagdagan yung kanilang lakas ng loob to chart the destiny not just of their jurisdictions pero collectively of the whole country. At itong pagiging stratehiko ni presidente, maybe it's not strategic enough, maybe it's purely and cynically tactical kasi sinabi nila kaya daw sila nagiisip silang tumakbong VP para umiwas sa accountability, whether from local courts after his administration or the ICC.

Ang dami-dami nang nagbuhos ng kritisismo diyan that that is a blatantly unconstitutional and simply wrong use of any public office.

Q: And the vice president is not immune from suit.

SRH: Exactly. So kahit tactically, palpak yun. Hindi strategic move at kahit tactically, mali. Because no public office, not the VP office, not even the presidential office would shield a person from immunity for his crimes.

Q: At this point.. No one has declared except for Senator Ping Lacson. You have at least in the latest surveys, you're talking one of the frontrunners is his daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, and if she chooses not to run and PDP-Laban supports Senator Bong Go, some say you do have the administration resources backing him up even if he isn't faring in the surveys. So don't you see this as the strategic move that the President feels it's win-win for me, whether it's Sara who wins, Bong Go wins, I win.

SRH: Gaya ng pinaguusapan natin kanina, the President's enduring, up to this point, popularity is not transferrable to the same magnitude to any other candidate, ni miyembro ng pamilya nila, ni kaalyado nila. It is simply not the same. And the early surveys are already bearing that out so next year, malaki talaga ang nakataya, will the election bring us a continuation of Dutertismo, will the election bring us an end to Dutertismo and yung pagsingil ng accountability para diyan, we're all in this for the long game, ika nga. It may be anybody's game next year, hindi lang sa administrasyon at para sa oposisyon plus, plus or all the non-admin forces.

Q: What is the impact overall to the economy, to business coming into the country, to where the Philippines is headed if there is another six years of Duterte? No less than Vice President Leni Robredo said we cannot have another six years of this. What is the impact? Right now we're facing an 11-trillion peso debt. Foreign investments are down. You have the World Bank and even the IMF saying, among the ASEAN countries, and countries in the whole of Asia, the Philippines will recover the last.

SRH: That's why with all those international voices as well, you could say they are non-partisan international voices sounding the alarm about the slowest pace of our economic recovery from this pandemic. I agree with VP Leni's warning and voices are also coming out now from the private sector, the business community, that we cannot afford more of this very poor economic and pandemic response, which is simply a dead weight around the neck of our economy.

Hunger is stalking our land. Dumadami ang nawawalan at nababawasan ng trabaho. More MSMEs especially the smaller enterprises are being forced to close, more jobs are being shed, lalo na season 3 nung nakaraan ng ECQ, no pa-renew nang pa-renew yung series na iyan, kahit hindi naman siya pumapatok kasi kulang na kulang sa health and economic measures. Kulang na kulang din sa ayuda. So really, you don't have to be the leader of the opposition, as VP Leni is, to say please we can't afford another more than a half decade of this. Something's got to give. And maybe the election, I pray, will give us that break. Not only politically but economically as well.

Q: The VP has not made a decision yet on whether she should run. Or does this serve at least other than the surveys some kind of a tipping point or will it at least push her to run? Is that a factor in her decision?

SRH: I suppose any dire moments like we're in economically also would be a tipping point for any candidate especially the highest elected opposition leader. Any leader, any politician would also keep her finger on the pulse of the people, at palagay ko, you know, the surveys and focused group discussions are showing dahil pangalawang taon na ito ng pandemya, lumalabas na mas tipping point na ang usaping kabuhayan kaysa pa kalusugan.

More and more Filipinos are becoming ready to risk our health just to be able to go out, make a living, feed our families. So I'm sure VP Leni, as all the other presidentiables, is monitoring this public pulse, this public sentiment, or temperature. Going to the filing of certificates of candidacy in October, when we enter the campaign period, and down to the wire til election day. I'm also heartened na nag-uusap-usap sila, iba't ibang mga presidentiables pati sa non-administration camp kasi buhay parin ang pangarap ko ng isang united front. To deliver better health outcomes, better economic outcomes, better governance outcomes sa ating sambayanan after May 2022.

Q: Now both the Lower House and the Senate are conducting separate inquiries on how the Department of Health actually spent its funds. I know that you've been very active in the Senate hearings, but let's start first with the health benefits. Sec. Duque says it will be released at the latest today. But what have you discovered, what is most alarming to you, in terms of the health department has spent their funds?

SRH: If Duque said they will finally release those SRAs and the hazard pay to our healthcare workers today, ihabol narin nila yung pondo para sa MATs - meals, accommodation, transportation..

Q: Which was actually all covered in Bayanihan 2.

SRH: Exactly. All covered by Bayanihan 2 for which expenditures. As for Bayanihan 1, I have a pending resolution for a special audit by COA. Hats off to COA, sabi ng maraming kababayan natin, it's not only those wearing capes who are superheroes, sometimes they're also auditors working in COA. So kung sinasabi ni Sec. Duque na today they will begin releasing those funds, well and good. Ibig sabihin, let them not only make paper corrections or give paper compliance to the COA audit, but really deliver concrete solutions to the stakeholders in the health scene, especially our healthcare workers. Pero kulang pa iyan. We need, not just compliance with COA; we need effective and inspiring leadership from the DOH.

And on other points na lumabas sa COA report, iyang transfer of P42 billion of DOH funds to the procurement service of DBM without a MOA, without supporting documentation. Yung P95 million worth of medicines na napanis nalang o napapanis nalang sa mga bodega ng DOH, while our LGUs are crying for more non-COVID medicines as well in their rural health units, and barangay health stations.

There's an international UN agency, UN Women and the Center for Global Development, saying that women are affected by the lack of medicines in those health facilities nearest to all of us. So bakit sa kabila ng lahat ng iyan, there are monies unspent for the healthcare workers, there are monies transferred in large magnitudes to PS-DBM without documentation at may malaking halagang pera ng gamot na napapanis sa mga bodega. These all go back to the doorstep of Sec. Duque.

Q: Christopher Lao, the former head of the procurement office of the DBM, has been subpoenaed by the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee and he is scheduled to attend today.

SRH: Good. He really should appear. He was heading the procurement service of DBM when those fund transfers took place. They may not be the only ones. DBM acting secretary Canda said there are billions of pesos of transferred funds out of DOH to PS-DBM, perhaps also to PITC or the Philippine International Trading Corporation.

We want someone to adequately explain how funds transferred to PS-DBM in particular were spent and the best person to do that is indeed the head of the office at that time, no other than former Usec Lao. More than the lack of proper documentation, he needs to explain why contracts were awarded to firms that sold overpriced Personal Protective Equipment, overpriced PPEs and supplies, when in fact are the subject of that resolution I filed requesting for a special audit. I'm glad these things are coming out and being brought to the public's attention through the Commission on Audit kaya muli mabuhay sa COA.

Q: Christopher Lao was a supporter of President Duterte during the campaign. Senator Bong Go issued a statement, saying that it is inaccurate to call him his former aide. But you do have sources saying clearly there is some kind of closeness between the two, but Senator Bong Go has said that that was an appointment that had nothing to do with him. Do you find it curious that the DOH transferred the funds, 42 billion, and it lands on the lap of a supporter of this government, not a career official, and somebody who's been linked to a colleague as senator?

SRH: Well if my colleague says that but the fact still stands that former Usec Lao is a known supporter of the president at totoo ganyan tens of billions of pesos landed in his service he used to head, the PS-DBM. At sa panahon niya, ayun na nga may mga kontratang inaward sa overpriced suppliers ng mga health supplies may mga kontratang inaward sa mga China-based companies sa kabila ng there were Filipino manufacturers offering quality medical grade and cheaper supplies at that time and yet they were not awarded any of those contracts even after reconfiguring their own production on the request of government so dapat magpaliwanag si dating Usec Lao.

Q: But more than that also is the Department of Health transfers P42B to the DBM for procurement and of the P42B only P29B was spent, there something like P12 or P13B that was unobligated or unspent. In the midst of a pandemic, what accountability is there for the DOH?

SRH: For DOH and PS-DBM, in tandem for that P13B sa hindi nagastos sa kabila ng matinding at paulit-ulit na sinasabing pangangailangan ng ating health care workers, plus yung P12B na hindi ginastos ng DOH specifically para sa health care workers. Bakit may P13B nakapark pa rin sa PS-DBM, earning interest at the time of a pandemic samantalang yung mga LGUs natin, ang ating mga kababaihan, kulang na kulang sa pera. Bakit may nakapark pa rin at kumikita ng interes na P13B without the MOA, without supporting documents. All around, doesn't smell right.

SRH: You have called for the resignation of Secretary Duque many months ago even last year when questions of his efficiency and capability came out. There were 14 Senators who called for, but it is too late at this point. The president is clearly standing up for him. But many ask, if he is truly, for example, if he's shown gross negligence, why are there no cases that have been filed against him?

SRH: And actually such cases could be filed. In addition to possible graft and corruption cases, at least that offense of gross negligence. Kasi naman, yes the President continues to protect him, hindi naman pwedeng hirap na hirap ang ating mga kababayan sa walang katapusang lockdown, samantalang ang Sercretay of Health ay sitting pretty at protektodo. Sinabi ng pangulo noong gabing yun, I will stand for Duque even if it bring me down. Wow, but Sec Duque has been largely ineffectual, he suffers from a serious case of incompetence. Pwede nating itanong the secretary is co-chair of the IATF pero ano nga ba talaga ang ambag nila kahit sa IATF? Actually naka farm out na yung mga major response tasks during this COVID-19 pandemic. We have Sec Dizon as testing czar, we have Sec Ano as the contact tracing czar, we have Sec Galvez as vaccine czar, Sec Vega is still the treatment czar, Usec Vergeire is the spokesperson for the DOH.

Sa dami ng iba't ibang department secretaries na czar siyang may hawak sa mga elemento sa usapin ng pagtugon sa COVID, ano pa ba talaga ang naiiwan sa kamay ni Sec Duque.

Q: He's above health clearly, he oversees Health.

SRH: And it doesn't seem like it. With the way DOH has been falling behind in properly spending the funds appropriated to it by COngress, the funds released to it by the DBM. Ang ganda nga ng sagot ni acting DBM Sec Canda noong sinabi ng DOH na kulang ang nirelease na pondo sa kanila ng DBM. Ang sagot ng DBM at that first hearing was 'o kung kulang ang pondong binigay namin sa inyo, bakit may sinauli pa kayo?' Right? Why is there the P12B unspent just for that one item of the health care workers.

Q: In today's hearing, you are expecting Chris Lao to attend?

SRH: Yes. He must face the Senate, face the public and hopefully face the music.

Q: And you don't find it curious he resigns when the COA report has come out. And also DBM Chief Wendell Avisado resigns a few days before the Senate starts its Blue Ribbon Committee meetings. You have two officials of the DBM that need to answer and are accountable for P42B being transferred by the DOH without proper documentation at that and they both leave their posts.

SRH: Curiouser and curiouser talaga.

Q: You have an OIC, an acting secretary answering who did not make those decisions.

SRH: And who in fairness to her is a career official of the DBM.

Q: Is it just unfair. Shouldn't Avisado be called to answer. They resigned and escaped their accountability if ever?

SRH: Perhaps it would be a good idea also to invite Former Sec Avisado to the hearing. He resigned just recently before the budget debates go into high gear but si Former Usec Lao resigned a couple of months ago and really mysteriously, walang paliwanag, walang dahilan na binibigay at least publicly sa kanyang pagbitiw sa tungkulin. In fact, he was reportedly in communicado for these past couple of months kaya mabuti na lang kung talagang mag-aappear siya mamaya akonti sa aming pagdinig. The resignation of former Sec Avisado I think is more lamentable at kung imbitahin sya ng aming Senate Blue Ribbon Committee Chair Dick, I believe that he would appear. But really the man on the hot seat is the head, former head of the procurement service DBM.

Q: You were once in PhilHealth and the dilemma right now is the circular released by PhilHealth, a unilateral circular of course just saying they will just stop paying hospitals because they are investigating possible fraud. We're talking about P86B of unpaid hospital bills, P20B with the private sector and under PhilHealth rules, they need to pay within 60 days.

SRH: That's the turnaround time.

Q: If a hospital doesn't accept you, hypothetically, are they answerable to the law?

SRH: They are.

Q: And yet PhilHealth leaves them no choice, it has unilaterally decided, we don't want to pay you in 60 days in the midst of a pandemic.

SRH: Yes and as always the PhilHealth members, it's the patients who will pay the heaviest price.

Q: Because the coverage for COVID is 750,000.

SRH: At most for critical cases. It is a range from coverage from mild, moderate, severe to critical cases. Really that's a financial lifeline for COVID patients as PhilHealth is envisioned to be sa ating universal healthcare system. The health financing or insurance pillar para may coverage ang bawat miyembro ang bawat pasyente at hindi mababankrupt ang sinumang pamilya kung kailangang magpaospital ang kanilang miyembro lalo na panahon ng pandemya.

I echo the call of my party Akbayan, let's build bridges not walls especially during this time of pandemic. I'm actually filing a resolution calling, a joining of these issues across the different stakeholders primarily, the PhilHealth members of patients, the hospitals that need to stay afloat during this pandemic, and PhilHealth which initially has said that they are suspending payments to what they call questionable claims for a period of 120 days which translates to 4 months which is just untenable in a middle of a pandemic.

Sinabi ni Sec Duque na magtatawag daw sila ng dialogue, let's get on it Sec and let that dialogue bear concrete fruit in the first meeting pa lang. Because everyday that passes nainsecure lalo ang ating mga pasyente, ang PhilHealth members sa coverage sa kanila lalo kung sila ay maconfine dahil sa COVID could really spell the difference between life and death for our kababayan.

Q: Let's talk about the 2022 budget, the government is proposing a P5T plus budget for 2022, the largest in history. What red flags are you seeing with that budget? Let's start first with the NTF-ELCAC budget?

SRH: And an increase in the NTF-ELCAC budget at the time na yung proposed budget nila para sa DOH in the middle of a pandemic ay fifth lang, ranking fifth lang sa lahat ng mga departamento.

Yung para sa DSWD na kasamang ayuda is only sixth highest in the proposed budget at yung para sa DOLE at a time when people have lost so many jobs had to shutdown their livelihoods, yung para sa DOLE, para sa job generation, ay tenth lamang. Nasaan ang tamang priorities ng administrasyon, ng executive at the time of a pandemic.

Q: Let's talk about the NTF-ELCAC. Does it need a bigger budget?

SRH: I don't think it needs a bigger budget. Medyo hirap na hirap na nga kami sa Kongreso, labas sa ilong ng iba sa amin para ipasa yan noong nakaraang taon dahil masyadong mabigat ang kamay ng Armed Forces at PNP sa foreseen expenditure ng mga pondong iyon pero sige nakinig kami lalo na sa ating mga LGUs na sabi nila doon sa mga barangay nila na medyo humupa na ang armed conflict, more of peace process has been undertaken on the ground that they need any additional funds for development programs so okay, naipasa yun but now, the executive, the Office of the President is asking for an even bigger budget

Q: It's asking now for P28B. The budget for the NTF-ELCAC was it at 16 or 19?

SRH: It was at 19.

Q: Now at 28

SRH: Yes, if it was at the 16s, ngayon nasa 20s. 28 at a time na yung proposed budget say para sa University of the Philippines system is only P20B kasama na yung para sa PGH, our main hospital in the middle of a pandemic. Ang daming gumegewang-gewang yung proposed budget nila with wrong priorities.

Q: Do you fear that the NTF-ELCAC could actually be used for patronage politics during the elections? It's released to the LGUs directly, and in a way it's how you court the local officials.

SRH: I support releasing the budget directly to LGUs but not just through this channel. Not just through NTF-ELCAC. It should primarily be through the DILG, and yes direct to the LGUS and in this time of pandemic and recession, directly to the LGUs through the DOH and through the economic departments of our government. Less through the military or police channels because we need to budget the AFP and PNP properly and directly to them for their core mandates but the development mandate especially in our LGUs hands and through our government's economic managers should flow greater and more properly through the proper channels. At sa ganoong paraan we will see a more correct budget that is COVID-responsive and that is recession-responsive to our kababayan in the different LGUs.

Q: The budget for 2020 of the DOH was something like P200B and the COA flagged them because P57B was unspent. Do they deserve a bigger budget? But there are departments that are notorious for really unobligating, unspending and use absorptive capacity as the real problem.

SRH: I'm afraid that the Department leadership, the Secretary is most responsible for that underspending in the middle of the pandemic. Naniniwala pa rin ako na may mga liderato sa DOH lalo na sa kanilang mga Usec at Asec pababa down to the ground our local health officers who know how to spend that money and who have been spending and would be spending it better with a more effective, competent leadership at the top. Medyo mahirap ang aming sitwasyon this year, we have to rely on the COA reports, for one I would be arguing for more and better funding for DOH pero medyo weight around our necks yung current leaderships. We have to be of two minds appropriating for the DOH for the year 2022 dapat may sapat at mas malaking budget sila but knowing that there's that Secretary, protektodo ng presidente but who has overseen a really you know a criminal or a sinful underspending of that fund at this time.

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