Health Undersecretary Vega: 39 years mostly in government service; chaired country’s 1st health cooperative

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 08 June) –  Thursday, June 4, was a usual day for Dr. Leopoldo “Bong” Jumalon Vega, chief of the Southern Philippines Medical Center (SPMC), his home for the most part of his 39-year career as a doctor specializing in cardiothoracic surgery, the last 12 years as chief of Mindanao’s premier government hospital.

A phone call that evening, however, would change that routine for Vega, who turned 65 in November and should have retired from government service, but whose stay as Medical Center Chief II  of the 103-year old hospital, has been extended.

Photo of Dr. Leopoldo J. Vega, Chief of the Southern Philippines Medical Center in Davao City screengrabbed during the virtual presser of the Philippine Information Agency Davao region on April 6, 2020.

The call came from Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, former Special Assistant to the President, who was with the President at the Matina Enclaves here during the meeting of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases which was also the taping for the President’s “Talk to the People on the Coronavirus Disease.”  The President instructed Go to call Vega while praising Vega before the Cabinet secretaries present, among them Health Secretary Francisco Duque, for what he has done at the SPMC.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque told MindaNews that Vega’s appointment was “agreed upon during the taping” (of President Duterte’s ‘Talk to the People”) and  Go phoned Vega but the latter “could not come (to Matina Enclaves) because he came from the hospital.”

Roque said the meeting/taping was from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.  on Thursday. It was aired at 8 am. on Friday.

“It came fast,” Vega told MindaNews on Saturday.  “Just had a call night of June 4 and followed up by Secretary Duque yesterday (Friday).”

Asked if he would head the team that President Duterte ordered Duque on Thursday night to immediately organize to ensure that the long-delayed payment of financial assistance to the families of government and private health workers who succumbed to COVID-19 and those who contracted severe COVID-19 infection while in the line of duty, Vega told MindaNews on Monday morning: “Sorry. I don’t have details of my work as undersecretary. Will talk to Secretary Duque in Manila this week.”

“Will update you,” he said.


Vega also said he does not know as yet if his position as Health Undersecretary is concurrent with his position as SPMC chief as there are pending projects that he would like to see through in the last two years of the Duterte administration.

He said he is confident he can do both, if his task is on concurrent capacity, because as he has been doing in the SPMC and in his previous management work, “all you need is to have a vision, to share that vision. “You do not micromanage,” he told MindaNews in a telephone interview Monday morning.

The Southern Philippines Medical Center (SPMC) in Davao City. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

Vega was appointed chief of the DMC on April 14, 2008. The DMC was elevated to and renamed SPMC through a law passed in November 2009, which also increased its bed capacity from 600 to 1,200.

SPMC is the lone referral hospital for COVID-19 in Davao City which has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Mindanao.  From March to May, SPMC was the lone  laboratory for COVID-19 testing in Mindanao.

Vega e acknowledged his forte is on hospital management but whatever his assigned task will be as Health Undersecretary, “I am ready to face the challenge.”

“Totally unacceptable”

Vega’s appointment is widely interpreted here as a transition post to Health Secretary but Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque told MindaNews he has “no idea if this is transition.”

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

Roque confirmed Vega’s appointment to Malacanang reporters in a text message at 9:02 p.m. on Friday, 13 hours after the pre-taped “Talk to the People” was aired, showing an irked Duterte saying the two-month delay in giving out financial assistance to the health workers is “totally unacceptable to me.”

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte meets with members of the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Matina Enclaves in Davao City on June 4, 2020. JOEY DALUMPINES/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

RA 11469 or the Bayanihan Heal as One Act  also provides a “COVID-19 special risk allowance” for health workers, in addition to the hazard pay granted by the Magna Carta of Public Health Workers or RA 7305.

Hours before the President’s meeting on Thursday, Go delivered a privilege speech at the Senate session via Zoom from Davao,  urging the Department of Health to “release the rightful compensation  for our health workers who have died and have been infected by COVID-19.”

Go said 32 health workers had died from COVID-19 and hundreds have contracted the disease but they have not received the assistance.

“The President has been very clear against red tape. In fact, he has firmly stated that — within 48 to 72 hours— all papers should have already been acted upon.
Ibig sabihin: Huwag patagalin. Huwag patulugin sa lamesa. Ito, dalawang buwan na po pero wala pa rin?! Bakit matagal?! O sadya bang pinapatagal? Wala bang gumagalaw sa inyo?!” (This means: Do not delay. This one is two months but it has not moved. Why is it taking so long? Or was this deliberate? Is anyone of you moving to address this proelbem?) Go asked.

Education, Trainings

Vega completed his elementary and high school education at the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Davao University, his AB General Studies at the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) in 1975 and Master of Business Administration – Health also at ADMU in 2009.

He finished Medicine at the University of the East Ramon Magsaysay Medical Center in Manila in 1979.

He went to the Asian Institute of Management for short executive courses on Health Management from 2004 to 2005 and attended a Hospital Management Program in 2016 at the Singapore Management University.

Vega took up his training on surgery at the Davao Medical Center from 1981 to 1985 and thoracic, cardiovascular surgery at the Philippine Heart Center in Quezon City.

Health cooperative

The cardiothoracic surgeon who loves running was a “marathon man” in his early years and was also active in the city’ cooperative movement, where he honed his management skills.

Vega chaired the country’s first health cooperative – the Medical Mission Group Health and Hospital Services Cooperative (MMGHHSCP) — from 1991 to 1997 and 1999 to 2003 and was board member of the Cooperative Bank of Davao City from 1999 to 2001.

He  was program coordinator of the Cooperative Health Fund from 1985 to 2003 and the MMGHHSCP Federation’s Fedpharma from 2001 to 2003 and served in the organizing committees of Community-Based Health Programs in Davao City from 1988 to 2002, the MMGHSCP in establishing 51 chapters nationwide from 1989 to 2003, and the Air Transport Cooperative in 2001.

He served as Associate Professor at the Davao Medical School Foundation (DMSF)  from 1987 to 2008 and was Medical Director of the DMSF Hospital from May 2, 2003 to April 13, 2008, before moving to the Davao Medical Center as Chief of Hospital.

An article posted on the website of  CEO Magazine on January 29, 2019, quoted Vega as saying that when he was named as the first medical director of the DMSF, he was “able to apply the skills I’d learned during my time working for a cooperative non-governmental hospital, which was a crucial preparation when I took up the reins” as DMC chief in 2008.

While working in the cooperative hospital and DMSF Hospital, Vega also worked as consultant at the DMC. He  served the DMC/SPMC from 1981 to 1985 and from 1994 until now. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)