CA rejects Paulyn Ubial as Health secretary

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, October 10) —  The powerful Commission on Appointments (CA) on Tuesday rejected President Rodrigo Duterte's choice for health secretary.

The decision to reject Paulyn Rosell Ubial as head of the Health Department was sealed when the 25-member CA reached a majority or 13 "no" votes, after nearly three hours of discussion.

Ubial was the last cabinet member to face the CA and the fifth of the President's appointees to be rejected.

Prior to this, Ubial was bypassed twice. She was reappointed by Duterte on July 23. She held the post for one year and five months.

The Palace on Tuesday said it regretted the CA's decision, but recognized the work Ubial did to make health accessible to all.  This included the health department's supervision of drug rehabilitation programs in line with the President Duterte's campaign against illegal drugs.

"We are deeply grateful for Sec. Ubial's service to the Health Department and for epitomizing the President's malasakit through her 'All for Health, towards Health for All' Philippine Health Agenda," Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Deputy Minority Leader Harry Roque, one of Ubial's critics, said her rejection paved the way for the President to name another medical professional with proven management skills to head the Department of Health (DOH).

"We averted a major public health disaster with the non-confirmation of Ubial. The DOH deserves a decisive leader and I call on President Duterte to appoint an exceptional doctor with proven managerial skills to head the DOH," Roque said.

Obstacles to confirmation

Ubial, who was previously assistant secretary for health regulation in the DOH, faced a slew of obstacles on her road to confirmation, as she was questioned by lawmakers on her policies concerning reproductive health and travel expenses.

Occidental Mindoro Representative Josephine Ramirez-Sato grilled Ubial on her administrative order allowing nurses and midwives to perform manual or vacuum aspiration on women who have had an an induced or accidential abortion.

Aspiration is a procedure that removes the contents of the uterus through the cervix using a huge syringe or a tube called a cannula.

Sato said nurses and midwives asked Ubial to repeal the order since the procedure is "beyond their competency."

Ubial said the policy is being reviewed, explaining that aspiration can only be performed by those who are trained to do it. She defended the policy saying that the process is "life-saving" since there are 400,000 cases of abortion in the Philippines yearly, and many die because of complications.

"There are no obstetricians in some areas and the manual vacuum aspiration technology has been introduced in other countries. It is life saving to complete and to treat complicated or incomplete abortion in women, whether it is induced or spontaneous abortion," Ubial had said. Abortion is illegal in the Philippines.

Ubial also faced questions on the issue of her appointing PhilHealth officials which she is not allowed to do and the delay in the implementation of dengue vaccines, among others.

The former Health Secretary was criticized for her proposal to distribute condoms in schools, which she eventually retracted. Lawmakers also questioned her "numerous" foreign travels, even as Ubial said these were covered by the governments that invited her and her team.

Over the course of the year, the Commission on Appointments rejected the appointment of four cabinet members: Foreign Secretary  Perfecto Yasay, Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Gina Lopez, Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, and Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano. Taguiwalo and Mariano were Duterte's first choices in his bid to include the left in his cabinet.