Health Minister Mam Bunheng offered “irresponsible” answers at the National Assembly yesterday as lawmakers sought to question him on several irregularities under his watch, Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers said, though a decision on whether to follow through on an earlier threat to seek his impeachment hasn’t been made just yet.
The session, which was attended by 81 lawmakers, was limited to only one hour, during which Bunheng took 20 minutes to read prepared remarks, after which lawmakers were able to ask follow-up questions. Bunheng didn’t speak to reporters after the session and didn’t answer numerous phone calls throughout the day.
CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhai Eang, who spoke to the media after the session, said he couldn’t accept the minister’s responses.
“His answers are not true and some questions were not answered,” he said. “In short, his answers were not satisfactory and he answered some questions irresponsibly.”
Bunheng was questioned on allegations of graft involving Global Fund money, the management of imported medication and Cambodia’s hospitals, doctors’ ethical standards and the country’s overall health care system, which lacks public confidence.
On the matter of the Global Fund, which Health Ministry officials have previously de-frauded, Bunheng said the issue wasn’t for the ministry to deal with, but rather for the Anti-Corruption Unit and the Global Fund itself.
He added that the Global Fund was satisfied with the report by the ACU’s investigation.
“I believe His Excellency Om Yentieng also has a duty to answer [questions] about this at our National Assembly,” the minister told lawmakers.
Global Fund spokesman Seth Faison would only say that the fund “continues to work with the government of Cambodia to find solutions”, adding that he could not say “more at this time”.
Just three years after the National Malaria Centre – which is under the ministry – was embroiled in a corruption scandal involving the distribution of Global Fund contracts, more allegations of corruption were revealed in May by a Post investigation.
Officials at the centre were found to be doling out jobs to relatives, who then used the positions to claim often-spurious travel expenses from donors like the Global Fund and FHI 360. Despite a wealth of evidence, no action was publicly taken against those involved.
Chai Eang also raised the issue of the sale of the land formerly occupied by the National Malaria Centre. He claimed the land’s market price was about $3,000 per square metre, but it was sold by the ministry for only $1,500 a square metre, a difference he maintained was unacceptable.
Bunheng also was questioned the sale of the Chamkarmon district referral hospital, which has since been converted into a bank. But all that the minister would say was that he agreed to sell those locations because of the needs of Phnom Penh City Hall and the government.
“I did it [according] to the legal procedures,” he told lawmaker. “I respect the existing law … and respected the existing procedures.”
Bungheng also assured lawmakers that companies that import medication and pharmacies that sell it are inspected twice and four times a year, respectively. He also highlighted a new agreement between his ministry and the Ministry of Interior to crack down on unlicensed doctors.
“We have filed complaints to the court against some unlicensed doctors and falsely certified doctors,” he told lawmakers. “[The] ministry is strengthening law enforcement step-by-step … We are not … ignoring it.”
CNRP lawmaker Mao Monyvann, who didn’t have a chance to ask questions because of the limited time, expressed dissatisfaction with the minister’s responses after the session. “From my opinion, his answers were not fully responsible before the assembly,” he said. CNRP chief whip Son Chhay, who had warned of starting the process to impeach Bunheng if he failed to adequately address concerns, said he was out of the country and unable to attend the session. But he would check with his colleagues upon his arrival back in the capital, “before making a decision on what to do next”.
Monyvann and Chhai Eang, meanwhile, said the CNRP would have a meeting to discuss further action.
Thirty members of parliament would need to make such request to take the issue to a vote at the National Assembly.