For the record, President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s two-hour State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 24 was the second longest in Philippine history. Former President Benigno Aquino 3rd delivered a longer SONA in 2015 that clocked in at 2 hours and 15 minutes. In terms of word count, the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos delivered the lengthiest SONA ever, with 29,335 words.
Another first in this year’s SONA was a direct warning given by the Chief Executive to a Cabinet subaltern, in this case Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Paulyn Ubial.
Duterte put Ubial on the spot as he ranted about the difficulty of implementing various government projects. “The medicines will expire next month. I told Ubial, the Health Secretary, to find out if there is a nation that would allow its donation rather than go to waste,” he said after expressing frustration with the Supreme Court for issuing a temporary restraining order against the distribution of contraceptives under the Reproductive Health Law of 2012.
Earlier this month, Duterte visited soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) posted in Malaybalay City, Bukidnon, and narrated that he had ordered Ubial to speed up the delivery of medical equipment to AFP hospitals. “Kaya sinabi ko kay [so I told]Ubial, do it in 60 days, do it this month. Kung hindi ninyo palitan ‘yang [If you don’t change the] procedure, kayo ang palitan ko, si [I will replace you], Secretary Ubial mismo, [herself]” he warned.
During the SONA, he reiterated this explicit warning by saying, “Is Secretary Ubial here? Change the procedure because I will change you.” Television cameras were then focused on the DOH chief who raised her hand and smiled wanly.
The Commission on Appointments (CA) has already bypassed Ubial twice, and although reappointed by the President each time, she has now caught his ire. Two party-list congressmen and a private citizen have filed their opposition to her appointment, alleging her record of flip-flopping on major health issues, lying to Congress, excessive foreign travel, and incompetence.
Before she became health secretary, Ubial was an assistant secretary in the department when the P3.5 billion dengue vaccine program was approved during the Aquino administration. Upon becoming the DOH head in July 2016, she signed a resolution recommending the deferment of this program since the vaccines had not been proven safe.
“A panel of experts convened by the DOH revealed the dengue vaccine has potential health risks,” she testified before a congressional panel deliberating on the 2017 national budget.
But two months later, Ubial issued a certificate of exemption for the Dengvaxia vaccine so it could still be used despite her red-flagging of certain issues. When asked by a legislator about the flip-flop, she apologized and admitted she had forgotten about her department’s resolution.
While the Zika virus was raging last year, Ubial declared in a press conference that the Philippines was Zika-free as there was no local transmission – only to retract her statement shortly thereafter when the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that the sixth Zika case in the country was locally transmitted.
Claiming credit for the President’s issuance of Executive Order No. 26 providing for the establishment of smoke-free environments in public and enclosed places, she lost no time in urging local officials to come up with ordinances that are stricter than Republic Act No. 9211 or the Tobacco Regulation Act of 2003.
Ubial’s call for extreme measures was not consistent with RA 9211, nor was her pronouncement that the DOH is working on the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) of EO 26 over which her department does not have jurisdiction. Under the law, the Inter-Agency Committee on Tobacco composed of representatives from government, industry, and health organizations is the agency mandated to draft the IRR.
Her most recent blunder pertained to the number of deaths in the Marawi evacuation centers, when she cited a much lower figure compared with actual reports of higher casualties.
With no less than the President after her head, Ubial’s fate lies in the hands of the CA, where a third bypass will mean goodbye.
The author is chief financial officer of the Asian Center for Legal Excellence and serves as co-chairman of the FINEX Media Affairs Committee.