A probe too far
The Public Health Ministry's disciplinary probe against Dr Supat Hasuwannakit, director of Songkhla's Saba Yoi Hospital and president of the Rural Doctors Society (RDS), heightens suspicions about whether the move is politically motivated.
The ministry accused the doctor -- known for his environmental activism against state projects and criticism of the military government -- of violating purchasing norms when buying Covid-19 ATK test kits as director of Chana Hospital in Songkhla and also for his purchasing of elevators for a new hospital building that was then under construction.
The ministry claimed such procurement caused "severe damages to the civil service", without elaborating. Yet the probe has been criticised by civic groups, which see it as a form of harassment. This is not farfetched. Recently, Dr Supat has emerged as a staunch critic of the move to liberalise cannabis sales and consumption, an initiative led by Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who also leads the Bhumjaithai Party. At the height of the Covid epidemic, Dr Supat -- as president of the RDS -- slammed the government's Covid vaccine policy and accused the ministry of graft in its procurement of ATK tests.
Before the probe, led by Inspector General Kittisak Aksornwong, was launched on May 17, the ministry earlier this year issued a lightning transfer order to remove Dr Supat from his position at Chana Hospital and shunt him to Saba Yoi Hospital in the same province. Dr Supat, despite assuming the new position, lodged a petition against the order.
The ministry's controversial probe highlights the loopholes in state purchasing regulations. It's an open secret that the rules are excessively rigid, and those involved put enormous weight on unimportant details. Yet they are mostly useless as a tool against corruption, which remains rampant in the country.
More often than not, such rigid rules hinder the work of state officials, as they force them to compromise on efficiency and effectiveness rather than face the risk of legal trouble. This is probably the case for the probe against Dr Supat, who is known for his practicality and his tendency to think outside the box. At Chana Hospital, Dr Supat introduced solar rooftops to reduce electricity costs. He also promoted moves to reduce carbon emissions.
In general, the lack of an integrated budget among state agencies boils down to bureaucratic red tape, and most state officials want to play it safe without concerning themselves with how to be more efficient. For example, state agencies are not allowed to shift a budget from one project to another, even if the new project is more urgent.
A recent study by the Health System Research Institute blamed the rigid State Procurement Act BE 2560 for the initial delay in taking action to combat Covid-19, particularly regarding the purchasing of vaccines and medical supplies. This may have caused many unnecessary deaths. The institute subsequently recommended the health budget be revamped to make state hospitals more efficient.
The pandemic prompted the government to let state agencies be more flexible with their budgets. As such, the Health Ministry owes the public an explanation as to whether these guidelines were applied to Dr Supat's ATK test kits -- and if not, why?
Is the probe ill-intended? Dr Kittisak and the ministry have a duty to prove otherwise and show the public that it is not politically motivated as accused.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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- Supat Hasuwannakit