Senate probers eye malversation raps in P3.5-billion vaccine mess

A ranking member of the joint Senate inquiry into the dengue-vaccine mess said top Aquino Cabinet officials will face technical malversation charges for realigning, without congressional approval, P3.5 billion “savings” from an entirely different expense account, for a massive immunization program done with “undue haste” weeks before the 2016 elections.

Sen. Joseph Victor Ejercito, chairman of the Health Committee, which held two joint hearings with the Senate Blue Ribbon into the Dengvaxia fiasco, said last Sunday “it was very clear there was no item to buy dengue vaccine under the 2015 General Appropriations Act (GAA).”

Ejercito recalled former Budget Secretary Florencio B. Abad telling senators during a hearing on December 14 that funding for the dengue vaccine “was in the 2015 GAA” because it was “housed” under the Expanded Program on Immunization (EPI), which is under the GAA, “I took his word for it then.”

However, the senator added that “when I did my own research later, I discovered that there really is no mention of Dengvaxia under the EPI,” which lists nine immunization programs of the government against top killer diseases.

Ejercito found it amiss that P3.5 billion would be hastily realigned for just one vaccine class, an amount exceeding the total for the EPI, which lists nine other diseases.

“They said [at the hearing] there was no approval yet for the dengue vaccine when the 2015 budget was crafted, that’s why it was not included,” the senator said. But he noted that Abad had told senators on December 14—when Ejercito asked him why Dengvaxia was sourced from the miscellaneous personnel benefit fund  (MPBF) when it was not even in the 2015 GAA—that the dengue vaccine was “housed” in the mother program provided for in the GAA, or the EPI.  It turned out, said Ejercito, that dengue was nowhere in the EPI.

“That is still technical malversation because it had no approval of Congress [through the budget law],” he added.

The senator also recalled that Abad had noted in his testimony that Aquino had the prerogative to realign funds from savings at year-end, but Ejercito adds that “in my view, it should still be realigned to items that are in the GAA.” Dengvaxia, he added, was not in the 2015 GAA.

“We really have questions on how the Dengvaxia vaccine was obtained for such a huge amount of public funds when the 2015 budget made no mention of buying vaccines for dengue,” he said.

Ejercito also said it was premature to say if former President Aquino, who faced Senate probers at last week’s inquiry, was already off the hook.

“If you look at command responsibility, he [Aquino] may have some liability because, at least, he should have conducted due diligence. He assumed all the papers [on Dengvaxia] were in order,” the senator said adding the bigger liability rests on “his underlings who should have done due diligence,” referring to Abad and Health Secretary Janette P. Garin.

Asked about allegations that Abad circumvented the process by going around Congress to fund the drug deal, the senator said: “I don’t think anybody from Congress was aware of this transaction. The savings they used came from MPBF—which is really completely detached from a vaccine program.  That [P3.5-billlion] is too big an amount to realign,” Ejercito explained.

Ejercito also bared plans to “get medical experts and/or academe to validate the figures” given to Senate probers by Aquino officials to justify the fast-tracked purchase, citing the supposed galloping rise of dengue cases, projected to rise up to 2.8 million if there was no vaccination program.

He did not rule out the possibility of conducting further hearings by the Health Committee but said the panel would first consult medical experts and/or academe on whether they should “conduct separate inquiry.”

“It is possible there may be a separate hearing,” Ejercito said, but added “our immediate concern is the 830,000 children vaccinated with Dengvaxia. Even my own son, a 17-year-old boy, was injected.”

The senator added he saw enough indications from the December 11 and 14 Senate hearings “that it [Dengvaxia purchase] was really, inordinately rushed.”

“There was unprecedented speed by which this transaction was done,” Ejercito added as he traced the quick series of events from December 1, 2015, when former President Aquino met with Sanofi Pasteur officials in Paris, until December 29, when Abad caused a Saro to be produced.

Ejerctio also recalled that during Aquino’s December 14 testimony, the former president had admitted they really rushed it to avoid election ban, and because they worried it would not be pursued by the next administration. Aquino told senators he just wanted to “save lives” when he had the chance to.

To Ejercito, however, this presidential explanation “clearly shows there was undue haste.” The senator added all signatories, chiefly Abad and then Garin, could be liable for technical malversation.

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