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COA yet to audit billions used to buy COVID-19 vaccines due to NDAs —Angara

The Commission on Audit (COA) has yet to liquidate billions in public funds used to procure COVID-19 vaccines because its hands are tied by the non-disclosure agreements that were entered into by the Philippine government and the vaccine suppliers, Senator Sonny Angara said Tuesday.

Angara, who defended the proposed P13.1-billion budget of the state audit agency for 2023, bared this when Senator Francis Escudero asked how the COA conducted the audit on the appropriations and borrowings that were allocated for vaccine procurement when there were no reports from the agencies involved.

"How did COA audit the purchase of these vaccines in 2020 and 2021? Because again, based on newspaper reports, and you know... I based it on newspaper reports simply because there are no reports," Escudero said.

Escudero said he only got the information that the government allocated around P300 billion for the COVID-19 vaccines through news reports as there was no official information from the government.

Angara said there was P8.93 billion under the 2021 national budget allocated for vaccine procurement and almost P70 billion from foreign-assisted loans.

The Senate finance committee chair added that there are other appropriations for COVID-19 vaccines that were included in other laws.

"The previous government has been citing NDAs or non-disclosure agreements so as not to say anything about the procurement of vaccines. That's why I can only base it on newspaper reports, instead of actual reports either coming from the DOH coming from the DOF or for that matter...coming from COA," he added.

Escudero added that there should be audit reports on these procurements by now since the purchases were made late 2020 or early 2021.

In response, Angara said that the COA had conducted an audit on the quantity and the utilization of the vaccines but not on the actual funds that were used for their procurement.

"What they have subjected to audit is the inventory the quantities bought by government and the utilization of the vaccines, your honor, but they have not subjected to a detailed audit, the contracts between the government and the suppliers because of what you also mentioned, the so-called NDAs, contained in the purchase documents or the contracts regarding the purchase of vaccines," Angara said.

At this point, Escudero reminded the COA that its mandate is to ensure that the public funds were used legally and not to check if the vaccines were delivered properly.

"Hindi naman general services office ang COA na titingnan kung ang delivery tama at kung nagamit ang binili ng gobyerno. That's part of it but the more important component is: Was the money spent legally in accordance with law, insofar as the requirements for transparency and accountability provided for under the constitution and lodged with the constitutional commission called COA?" Escudero said.

COA to assert legal rights

Angara said COA had "felt restrained" by the NDAs at first but since Escudero raised the issue, the state auditors realized that they are not bound by the NDAs as they are not a party to the agreement.

Angara told Escudero that the COA will assert its legal right under the constitution and make representations with the agencies involved in the agreements to gather more information.

He added that the state audit agency has subpoena powers to "legally compel" the departments involved to submit the necessary documents.

"They are willing to use these powers, your honor," Angara said.

Until now, Angara said the copies of the NDAs were never given to COA.

Responding to Angara, Escudero said that it is "about time" for the COA to use these powers "given that it's been over a year."

He further pointed out that the current officer-in-charge of the Department of Health is also part of the previous administration's team, which means she might have known the details of the NDA.

"They cannot keep on answering and citing non-disclosure agreements that COA is not a party to and as I said the audit report of COA, insofar as DOH is concerned is already in and submitted and it cannot be left hanging and simply say that we checked the inventory, they used the inventory, and we still don't know at how much they bought each vaccine and each brand of vaccine," Escudero said.

The lawmaker warned that this might become a precedent, saying this is "a new breed of excuse."

'Rules are rules'

Escudero further argued that the declaration of national emergency does not suspend the operations of certain laws.

"I simply do not want it to occur again. However panicked we may feel, however big the emergency may be, however fast we need to act, the rules are the rules, the law is the law, and the job of COA is still the job of COA to do insofar as being the vanguard and guardians of public funds and expenditures," Escudero said.

Angara agreed with Escudero, saying it has no place in government documents but he mentioned that the NDA had some legitimacy back then because there were limited vaccine supplies and the government was scrambling to get the best deal possible.

"Now that the smoke has cleared so to speak, then there is a time always for a reckoning or an accounting and perhaps we are at that moment already and I thank you for raising this," Angara said.

Before ending his interpellation on the matter, Escudero clarified that he has no evidence or knowledge of any allegations of corruption or overpricing and he is only demanding transparency and accountability insofar as the vaccines procurement is concerned.

"Panay ang reklamo sa mga confi funds. Ito, talo pa ang confi funds—ni walang accounting to, ni walang liquidation to e," he said.

In relation to the issue, Angara mentioned that the DOH, in a Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) meeting, has informed the lawmakers that they wish to amend vaccine procurement law.

The lawmaker said they might demand the disclosure of the vaccine procurement details should the Senate conduct hearings on the amendments on the said law.

"Perhaps, if we are going to hear that, these amendments, then we really have a chance to elicit the information from DOH themselves... We can say that we won't pass any amendatory law unless they level with us as to how much was really spent and all these details that you are seeking," he said. — BM, GMA Integrated News