Dr. Vega: “I am just preparing myself for Undersecretary, I cannot fathom being Secretary at this time”

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 08 June) –   Reporter Joseph Morong of GMA News found it “very unusual” that a new Undersecretary whose appointment was announced only on Friday evening would be presented before the Malacanang Press Corps on Monday noon. “Kapalit ba siya ni Secretary?” (Is he replacing the Secretary?), he asked Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque.

Morong wanted to know why President Rodrigo Duterte appointed another Undersecretary at a time when Health Secretary Francisco Duque has been facing a lot of criticism and calls for resignation for how he has been handling the COVID-19 public health crisis.

Dr. Leopoldo J. Vega, chief of the Southern Philippines Medical Center and newly-appointed Health Undersecretary. (R) with Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque during the press briefing in Malacanang on Monday, 08 June 2020. Vega joined the briefing livestreamed from his office in the SPMC in Davao City

“Ah hindi ko po alam kung kapalit siya ni Secretary” (I don’t know if he will replace the Secretary), Roque replied. He explained that the context of Vega’s appointment on Thursday, during the meeting at the Matina Enclaves in Davao City with the President and other members of the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases was “the President was very unhappy with the delay” in the release of benefits for government and private  health workers who succumbed to COVID-19 and those who are severely affected.

The families of medical frontliners who died of COVID-19 are supposed to receive, according to RA 11469 or the Bayanihan Heal as One Act, a million pesos each while those who suffer severe cases of COVID-19 infection in the line of duty will be given a hundred thousand pesos each. More than two months after the passage of the law, the benefits had yet to released.

Duque blamed the delay on the crafting of a Joint Administrative Order to guide the distribution of money, which came out only on June 2.

An irked Duterte said the two-month delay was “unacceptable to me.”

Roque reiterated the President was unhappy with the delay and “kinakailangan magkaroon ng isang maaasahan na tao diyan sa (he needed somebody he could rely on at the) Department of Health and that was Secretary Vega, Underscretary Vega”

Turning to Vega who joined the Malacanang press briefing livestreamed from his office at the SPMC in Davao City, Morong asked what the President asked him to do.

“From my perception, when the Office of the President called me to help them out in terms of  making sure that services and commitments are committed, I had the impression that I have to make some coordination in the different agencies in terms of the national government, like the DOH (Department of Health),” Vega said.

Health Undersecretary Vega: 39 years mostly in government service; chaired country’s first health cooperative 

Morong said he wanted to address the elephant in the room. “What if the President offers you the post of Secretary?”  Would Vega accept?

Vega replied: “Well … that’s ..  I don’t think I can answer you right now. It’s too theoretical and I am just preparing myself for Undersecretary so I cannot fathom being Secretary at this time.”

Why USec? Why not Health Secretary?

The news from Manila about Vega’s appointment on Friday night was welcomed by Dabawenyos, a number of whom had expected Vega would be named Health Secretary when Duterte assumed the Presidency in 2016.

But many viewed Vega’s appointment as a transition post to Health Secretary.

Roque told MindaNews on Saturday: “no idea if this is transition.”

On social media, a university professor urged Duterte to name Vega as Health Secretary, claiming “our people have suffered enough from the incompetence of DOH Secretary Duque.”

“I now openly join the growing call of many public health leaders for DOH Secretary Duque to resign!” said Professor Hadji Balajadia, who teaches social psychology and Filipino psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University. 

Describing Vega as the “health action man from the South,” Balajadia said Vega can “take the lead to handle the national health crisis” as he can “bring fire, energy, and excellence in contrast to the inertia, lack of sense of urgency and the miserable leadership” of Duque.

“The Filipinos deserve better,” Balajadi stressed,  and addressing Duque, said “do our country a favor, please have the decency to resign now!”

Coordination

When Roque introduced Vega to the Malacanang Press Corps on Monday noon, he said, “puring-puri po siya ng President” (the President has been lavishly praising him) for what he has done at the SPMC.

Roque noted that Vega has “no specific portfolio” as Undersecretary so “I take it kayo maging Undersecretary for Special Concerns” and the special concern now is COVID-19 and how government has been responding to this.

Dr. Leopoldo J. Vega, chief of the Southern Philippines Medical Center, gives additional information about a photograph, part of the exhibit during the SPMC Centennial Celebration held at the SMX CONvention Center in Davao City on 11 August 2017. Kiwi Bulaclac/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

Vega said he was “very humbled and honored for the trust and confidence” given to him by President Duterte “and I am taking the challenge for this kind of new field of work in my capacity.”

I think ang pinakaimportante dito (what is most important here) is a very good coordination between the Department of Health and how it is able to respond to the needs and services of the of the community,  that it has to be harmonized with what the IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force) would want and to respond for,” Vega said, adding that it is a huge responsibility to make sure  “that these services are given and they create an impact on the community.

The cardiothoracic surgeon Vega, chief of the SPMC since April 2008,  acknowledged “this is going to be a new challenge.”“

It’s a different field but I am prepared to learn and tingnan natin how we go about this since it’s really more on how we administer and manage the processes within and (how we are) able to collaborate,” he explained.

Asked by another reporter what his priorities would be as Undersecretary for Special Concerns, Vega responded that there are many deliverables and commitments like services and benefits for the frontliners as mandated by the Bayanihan Act. “I think we have to make sure that the commitments that are made through the Bayanihan must be done” and that there has to be a “good coordination especially in terms of this crisis, especially the testing of patients and the others who would like to have themselves tested. I think there are so many ways that I can really address the coordination between what the IATF wants and the DOH in terms of what should be delivered to the public.”

As Health Secretary, Duque chairs the IATF.

At the end of the press briefing, Roque again welcomed and thanked Vega and said ”buong buo po ang tiwala sa inyo ng Presidente (the President fully trusts you) and I am sure after a few years at the Department of Health eh ang buong Pilipinas po ay hahanga sa inyo gaya  ng paghanga sa inyo ng ating Presidente  dahil sa nagawa nyo sa (the entire Philippines will admire you the way the President admires you because of what you have done for) Southern Philippines Medical Center.”  (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)

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