Duque hits Garin over 'poor planning' for Barangay Health Stations project

MANILA, Philippines – Three Department of Health (DOH) secretaries faced off in a Senate hearing on the questionable P8.1-billion Barangay Health Stations (BHS) project, sparking heated exchanges.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and his predecessor Paulyn Ubial slammed the "poor planning" of former DOH chief Janette Garin and her team for the project.

The BHS project was implemented under the Aquino administration. Its goal was to establish 5,700 rural health units to ensure barangays have access to primary health care. Elementary schools were to be identified as sites for the health stations.

Duque said the root cause of all the problems is the "very defective" planning from the start.

Duque pointed out that several health stations were constructed in areas where just a few steps away, school-based and rural health stations were already present. There was also lack of coordination between the DOH and the Department of Education (DepEd), as some school principals refused to grant spaces for the health stations.

"The ripple effect of unworkable sites led to the non-utilization of the checkup equipment because wala ngang [sites] pero na-order na lahat 'yun (there were no sites but the equipment had already been ordered). That is not my personal opinion, this is the COA (Commission on Audit). Let's not engage in these lengthy verbosities," Duque said, in an apparent reference to Garin.

"It all points to one thing: poor planning from the very start, otherwise we wouldn't have this problem. It was very deficient, very defective to begin with. I'm sorry, I have to express my frustration. If there [were] good planning, you wouldn't expect all these happening now. You would have expected people to be enjoying benefits, which are acutely needed by people in far-flung provinces," he added.

Duque earlier said there were no validated sites before construction started in 2016. To date, the DOH has paid P1.2 billion to project contractor J-Bros Construction Corporation as payment for mobilization fees. (READ: Garin denies PhilHealth seniors' fund diverted to Barangay Health Stations project)

"Again, there is no argument with the objective. It's the planning, procurement, and implementation marred with irregularities. The planning stage was really terrible," Duque said.

But Garin argued that Duque was "going beyond the interpretation" of poor planning. She said the DOH and regional health offices directly communicated with other agencies, including local government units (LGUs), during her time.

Garin also said the poor planning began even before her term, adding that the problems when she arrived at the DOH affected the BHS implementation. One of these problems, she said, was the devolution of healthcare to LGUs, because there was no funding to begin with.

Duque was about to answer, but Garin told him: "If I may finish, this is my time. This is my time."

Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, however, refused to buy Garin's explanation, saying that her statements do not match the realities on the ground.

"Bakit may 547 stations na ayaw ng principal, may right-of-way [issue], walang space? There was a breakdown in validation. 'Di nila vinalidate itong mabuti," Gatchalian said.

(Why were there 547 stations that had problems: principals' refusal, right-of-way issues, lack of space? There was a breakdown in validation. They did not validate this properly.)

"What you're saying is totally different from what's happening on the ground," he added.

Ubial also slammed Garin, saying it was unusual that a high number of health stations were targeted to be constructed in just one year. She also questioned having a single contractor, J-Bros Construction Corporation, for the thousands of BHS nationwide.

"For the past I think 8 years we have implemented HFEP (Health Facilities Enhancement Program) starting 2008, when I came in, never did we have such a huge project in a given year. The most number of barangay health stations projected and planned is 500. That's about 30 per region," Ubial said.

"We didn't have national bidding. It's done per region. It's really very, shall I say, unwieldy, such a huge project in such a manner that it was planned, executed in a short time. And with only one contractor, it's really unimaginable," she added.

COA, in its report, said the project "was obstructed by ineligible and non-workable project sites that were not fully validated before project contracting and implementation due to absence of specific guidelines."

Duque earlier said he has requested the Office of the Ombudsman to look into the project. Documents were also sent to the Senate, House of Representatives, and Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission.

Garin has requested documents from COA and the Duque-created task force so she could address matters being raised about the project. – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is a multimedia reporter focusing on media, technology, and disinformation.