Inside a packed conference room on the first level, B-Wing of Papua New Guinea’s Parliament house, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) waits for senior members of the Health Department.
Already present are representatives from logistics and pharmaceutical companies who have been summoned to give evidence in an investigation into a health system in crisis.
After arriving half an hour late, Health Secretary, Pascoe Kase, walks into the packed conference room, sheepishly smiling and nodding an apology to the waiting committee headed by Chairman John Pundari and Deputy, Gary Juffa.
They’re not impressed by his lack of punctuality.
Over the past six years, Pascoe Kase, earned a reputation for dodging the media at every occasion. But in October and November, his evasive maneuvers were halted and his arrogance cut down to size by the parliamentary committee summons that compelled him to attend the investigation and give evidence as to the star witness.
Kase’s mood quickly shifts as a barrage of questions hits him.
He is asked about logistics, pharmaceutical standards and the contract bidding process that the committee has come to find is riddled with corruption and ‘insider trading.’
Deputy Chairman, Gary Juffa, is relentless and unforgiving. He squeezes out vital pieces of a puzzle that show how Papua New Guinea’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 specific set of standards? What does that mean according to your knowledge?,” Juffa asks.
“My personal knowledge? Or my…”
Kase attempts to answer and is cut off by the frustrated Deputy Chairman. “…Well, your professional knowledge. You’re the Secretary for Health so I’m assuming you would know about this…”
Secretary 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 then 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.
It was just one of many examples of the 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.
The committee found that health compliance standards were deliberately lowered so that companies could qualify. They also found that a drug used to induce birth had failed lab 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.
A litany of irregularities continued to be highlighted over the next three days.
One of the logistics companies – L & Z – owned by a Chinese national with no experience in medicine distribution, was still awarded a 17 million Kina contract because of the owner’s links with a former health department staff who wrote the tender application.
Another logistics company that operated for three years without a formal contract, was still paid more than 20 million Kina, with the secretary using his legal provisions to make part payments of up to half a million kina.
Then the bombshell came when the owner of another logistics company named a senior manager who he had paid bribes totaling up to K100,000.
The public has followed the inquiry with keen interest. Some have offered leads to new evidence that is being used by the committee.
The revival of investigations six years since the last hearings is quite refreshing for the PNG public.