| My Land, My Country | Edited
PORT MORESBY - Inside a packed conference room on the first level of B-Wing at Papua New Guinea’s parliament house, the Public Accounts Committee awaits senior members of the health department.
Already present are representatives from the logistics and pharmaceutical companies who have been summoned to give evidence in this investigation into a health system in crisis.
Arriving half an hour late, health secretary Pascoe Kase walks into the packed conference room, smiling sheepishly and nodding an apology to the committee headed by chairman Sir John Pundari and his deputy, Governor Gary Juffa.
They’re not impressed by his lack of punctuality.
Over the past six years, Kase has earned a reputation for dodging the media at every occasion.
But in October his evasive manoeuvres were halted and his arrogance cut down to size by the parliamentary committee summons that compelled him to attend this week’s investigation and give evidence as the star witness.
Kase’s mood quickly shifts as a barrage of questions hits him.
Deputy chairman Juffa is relentless and unforgiving. Kase is asked about logistics, pharmaceutical standards and the contract bidding process that the committee will come to find is riddled with corruption and ‘insider trading.’
Juffa squeezes out vital pieces of a puzzle that show how PNG’s health department lowered standards by ditching international quality management systems to allow pharmaceutical companies to qualify for the tender bidding process.
“I want to go back to the ISO 9001. What’s your understanding of a specific set of standards? What does that mean according to your knowledge?” Juffa asks.
“My personal knowledge? Or my….”
Kase is cut off by the frustrated Juffa.
“Well, your professional knowledge. You’re the secretary for health so I’m assuming you would know about this.”
Kase gives a long-winded response about how there are technical officers who give him advice about various operational areas of the department, but falls short of answering the question.
Juffa again cuts him off.
“Sir…sir… what does the acronym ISO 9001 stand for? Do you know?
“I don’t know. I would want some of the technical people to tell me,” Kase replies.
Juffa lectures the Health Secretary about the meaning of the ISO 9001, about international standards, and asks why the requirement was removed prior to the bidding process for a pharmaceutical tender.
This was just one of many examples of incompetence at the management pinnacle of the health department, shamelessly demonstrated in front of thousands of Papua New Guineans watching the proceedings live on Facebook.
A litany of irregularities continues to be highlighted during the three-day hearing.
One of the logistics companies – L & Z – owned by a Chinese national with no experience in drug distribution was nevertheless awarded a K17 million contract because of the owner’s links with a former health department staff who wrote the tender application.
Another logistics company, operating without a formal contract, was paid more than K20 million with Kase using his authority to make part payments of up to K500,000.
Then the bombshell came when the owner of another logistics company named a senior manager to whom he had paid bribes of about K100,000.
Issue after issue has been raised and exposed:
Medicine shortages still exist. There are chronic shortages of medicines in nearly all rural clinics.
The most expensive bidder was chosen. Borneo Pacific’s bid of K71 million was K20 million higher than the second bidder, City Pharmacy Limited.
Winning tenders had no prior experience. At least two logistics companies awarded drug distribution contracts had no prior experience in drug distribution.
No electronic tracking. One Chinese-owned logistics company admitted it did not have an electronic tracking system because it was “too expensive.”
Collusion with logistics companies. Former and current health department staff alerted individuals and companies to upcoming drug distribution tenders and assisted them in drafting tender documents.
Operating without contracts. LD Logistics operated without a contract for three years after its contract expired and was paid more than K20 million in portions of K500,000 to avoid payment ceiling provisions of the finance management act.
Standards lowered. The health department removed the ISO9001 compliance requirement prior to the bidding process, lowering standards to cater to the demands of tendering companies that could not meet the international quality standard.
The committee has found that health compliance standards were deliberately lowered so companies could qualify.
It has also found that a drug used to induce birth had failed laboratory tests yet may have been distributed. The health department team, when grilled, could not say if the drug had been recalled and removed. They didn’t know.
The public has followed the inquiry with keen interest. Some have offered leads to new evidence that is being followed up by the committee.
The revival of investigations, six years since the last hearings, is quite refreshing for the PNG public.