Big trouble in little Panama

The World Health Organization is often criticised for incompetence in a number of its policy focuses, not solely for its calamitous, head-in-the-sand position on lower-risk alternatives to smoking. But in the practice of handing awards to its buddies, it can only be described as a triumphant global expert.

To celebrate World No Tobacco Day in May, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros liberally dished out a number of motivational gongs to high-ranking members of its secretive club, and spoke in particularly glowing terms about a Special Recognition Award to Reina Roa Rodríguez, who is almost royalty in the WHO cabal. 

Dr Roa is Panama’s Focal Point for Tobacco Control, and Vice President of the WHO’s Bureau of the Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products (MOP), but you may remember her more for featuring in two previous Copwatch updates. 

In April, Copwatch reported that Dr Roa was being investigated by Panamanian authorities for “administrative irregularities” over a conflict of interest in her role as an “independent” adviser to the Ministry of Health. Questions arose over the Panamanian Coalition Against Tabaquismo (COPACET), of which she is founder, accepting a Bloomberg Philanthropies Award for Global Tobacco Control as a reward for successfully designing public policies which aligned perfectly with the goals of, you guessed it, Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The investigation did not get very far as she promptly resigned. 

Now Dr Roa is embroiled in more controversy. In her capacity as National Coordinator of Tobacco Control of the Ministry of Health, she is responsible for arranging transport for patients in critical or serious condition to hospitals located in remote areas, for which reimbursement payments are made. 

It is alleged that there have been many discrepancies in her book-keeping for these services. Billed hours did not match those recorded on transfer request forms, invoices were found without proof of patient admission in medical records, and incomplete request forms have been discovered, with no information which correlates with the transport required.

According to a letter processed by the Court of Accounts, Dr Roa is facing an order to freeze her assets, pending repayment of $87,930. 

Panama was rocked last year by a series of nationwide protests and blockades. They were prompted by cost-of-living concerns, exacerbated by deep-seated mistrust of government officials accused of feasting on taxpayer funds, and complaints about poverty, inequality and corruption in the country. 

Dr Roa has been a Ministry of Health employee since 1986, with latest filings showing she is paid $4,294 per month, roughly five times the average Panamanian salary. In the current political climate, with the Panamanian public angry at how their leaders are behaving, it is surely unimaginable that such a stalwart of upstanding public health, a WHO high priestess and recent awardee, no less, would stoop to feathering the nest further by doctoring (no pun intended) documents for health services. 

We are sure this is merely a simple misunderstanding which will be cleared up before criminal charges are filed against Dr Roa. 

Or perhaps she could just resign again.