POSTSCRIPT / August 6, 2006 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Ever so slow, we lost chance to flee Beirut

SLOW TO ACT: There are at least P5 billion in workers’ welfare funds and millions more in pork barrel and the President’s contingency and intelligence funds, but the money being received by the Philippine embassy in Beirut for the evacuation of Filipinos was coming in trickles.

The Israelis suspended for 48 hours bombing Lebanon to give non-combatants time to leave, but we failed to take advantage of the lull. The quarrel over funds and the difficulty of physically gathering Filipinos in Lebanon stymied evacuation plans.

Now the bombings have resumed, destroying infrastructure, including roads and bridges on the only escape route out of Beirut to the North.

Ang babagal kasi nating gumalaw, at ang gugulo ng ating mga politiko, kaya tuloy naiipit ngayon ang ating mga kawawang kababayan sa Lebanon!

We have this bad habit of moving ever so slowly. And our politicians debate over the most impertinent issues. So now Filipinos who should have escaped earlier are trapped in Israeli attack target areas in Lebanon.

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WHERE’S MONEY?: Collecting $25 from every departing contract worker — even before he could arrive alive at his work place and take his job — the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration has amassed more than P8 billion the past 10 years.

Other accountants say that should be P10 billion. Whatever, that is a lot of money. Who gets the commission or referral fee for depositing or placing the billions in/with favored banks?

Where is every peso of it? Ninakaw na ba? Is the government afraid that an audit might reveal a chunk of the trust fund had gone the way of fertilizer funds before the 2004 presidential elections?

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WHO BENEFITS?: Sen. Ralph Recto said that for every P100 collected from each departing worker, only about 69 centavos are set aside for such emergencies as repatriation. That is less than one percent of the total.

“For every peso OWWA collects, an average of 23 centavos go to paying its employees, plus 12 centavos to the agency’s so-called MOOE (maintenance and other operating expenses),” he said.

In its report to Congress last year, OWWA claimed spending P1.25 billion for projects and programs for OFWs and their dependents. That amount is 15 percent of total income — way below the 35 percent that OWWA spent for its payroll and operations.

One worrisome detail about that fund in the care of OWWA is that it is not turned over to the national treasury and is not appropriated through the national budget. So it is not audited like regular government funds.

The laws governing the fund can stand amendment, but Malacanang refuses to cooperate with the congressional committees looking into it in aid of legislation.

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CHEAP DRUGS: Sen. Mar Roxas has been a tireless campaigner for making branded drugs cheap enough for whoever needs them. He is again in the news for his bill seeking to amend the intellectual property code to allow local production of patented medicine.

When he was still trade secretary, Roxas initiated the big-volume importation of antibiotics and expensive medicine at prices so low that some people thought the drugs were imitation. Of course they were/are genuine and government-approved.

The drugs sold under his “Presyong Tama” program through the “Botika ng Bayan” network meant savings of 20 to 70 percent compared to the prices of branded medicine sold in major drugstores.

He pointed out that the Philippines has the highest cost of medicine in Asia, second only to Japan. The country has a per capita health spending of only P1,662 as of 2003.

Although half of the over 80 million population has no access to essential medicine, Roxas said Philippine drug spending averaged $1.1 billion from 1997 to 2001, the highest in Southeast Asia.

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OBJECTIONS: But Roxas’ plan to amend the intellectual property code to allow local production of patented medicine, even if their patents have not expired, could run into complications.

Some industry sectors said that is contrary to international agreements on patents, and unfair to foreign drug companies spending hundreds of millions of dollars in research to come up with life-prolonging and life-saving drugs.

Aside from moving to slash retail prices, Roxas may want to widen the perspective of his campaign to improve public health conditions.

He could formulate a comprehensive health reform program that includes bigger budgetary outlays to make more health services accessible to the poor, provide subsidized health insurance for indigents, motivate more doctors to work in the countryside, support the Generic Drugs Law and promote local production of medicines that are cheaper than parallel imports.

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RANHILL GIVES UP?: A report days ago datelined Kuala Lumpur said that the Malaysian firm Ranhill Berhad had dropped its plan to buy out YNN Pacific Consortium, winning bidder for the 600-megawatt power plant in Masinloc, Zambales.

The wire story quoting Ranhill sources said the firm also would no longer pay the $227-million down payment expected of YNN to clinch its purchase of the coal-fired plant, the most valuable generator being sold by the National Power Corp.

Ranhill has committed to pay the upfront amount for YNN provided the latter delivered to it a power supply agreement with the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco), the biggest buyer of electricity (for distribution) in the country.

The well-connected Malaysian firm is familiar with the terrain of securing government contracts. Malacanang sources said it has many big projects and is gunning for more, some of them in waterworks.

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AWARD CANCELLED: Ranhill must have seen what was coming, or was alerted by its friends in Manila. That KL story came ahead of a decision of the PSALM (Power Sector Assets and Liabilities Management Corp.) to cancel the YNN contract.

The decision — assuming it is firm and final — came after the Joint Congressional Power Commission chaired by Sen. Miriam Santiago directed the PSALM to cancel the $561-million sale and order a new bidding.

They better hurry up and drop the deal pronto. The House of Representatives has opened its own inquiry into the mess. That could be very expensive for the parties involved in the controversial contract.

But cancellation of the award should not be the end of the story. Charges must be filed against all those who made a mockery of the bidding rules and violated laws with impunity. They and their patrons should not get away.

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FORD RECALL: In case you owners and fanciers of sports utility vehicles and vans missed it on CNN, Ford Motor Co. is recalling 1.2 million large pickups, SUVs and vans because of a problem with the vehicles’ cruise control system that could cause a fire.

This recall is in addition to 3.8 million Ford vehicles that were recalled for the same problem last year.

Are Fords running in the Philippines included? Read on and ask your dealer if your unit falls under the categories mentioned.

The vehicles being recalled are: certain model year 1994 to 2002 F-250 through F-550 Super Duty trucks; 2000-2002 Excursion SUVs; 1994 to 1996 Econoline vans; 1996 to 2002 E-450 vans and 1998 Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer SUVs.

CNN, which was among the first to call attention to the hazard, said diesel vehicles are not included in the recall.

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DETAILS: CNN reported: Ford said in a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that in rare cases, brake fluid can leak through the cruise control deactivation switch causing corrosion in the switch. This can cause the switch to overheat and possibly burn.

The switch shuts off the cruise control when the driver firmly steps on the brakes. The switch is located under the hood of the vehicle and is attached to the brake master cylinder on one end and wired to the cruise control on the other.

On most of its models, Ford designed the switch to be powered — or “hot” — at all times, even when the vehicle is off. Inside the switch, a thin film barrier separates brake fluid from the switch’s electrical components.

In January 2005, Ford recalled around 800,000 F-150 pickups for the problem.

Later that year, CNN launched an investigation into fires in Ford vehicles that had not been recalled after numerous Ford owners complained that their vehicles caught fire when their engines were off and the keys were not in the ignition.

In September 2005, Ford recalled certain Bronco, Expedition, Lincoln Blackwood and Lincoln Navigator SUVs as well as some Ford F-150 and F-250 pickups for the same problem. A total of 3.8 million vehicles were recalled at that time.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 6, 2006)

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