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Senate ends PhilHealth corruption probe

senate ends philhealth corruption probe - Senate ends PhilHealth corruption probe
PhilHealth protest philstar - Senate ends PhilHealth corruption probe
PHILSTAR/MICHAEL VARCAS

THE PHILIPPINE Senate ended its investigation of corruption at the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) and has begun drafting a report that will be endorsed to anti-graft and prosecutorial agencies.

“We are done with the carousel of denials and lies,” Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III said in a statement on Wednesday.

PhilHealth President Ricardo Morales and other officials accused of pocketing billions of pesos in taxpayers’ money should get ready with their defense at the Ombudsman and Justice department, the lawmaker said.

“I’m formulating the committee report soon and will forward all findings to the Department of Justice,” Mr. Sotto said. “Enough is enough.”

“Filipinos don’t deserve a state health insurance that is so corrupt, made possible by officials entrusted with mandatory monthly deductions from hard-earned salaries of ordinary employees,” Senator Panfilo M. Lacson said in a separate statement.

He said Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, who is PhilHealth chairman, has stayed too long at both agencies in different capacities and has admitted in a public hearing that he had given his best but it wasn’t good enough, Mr. Lacson said.

“More than public interest, public health is imperiled with Secretary Duque at the helm of the Department of Health (DoH),” he said.

“Notwithstanding the trust and confidence reposed on him by the appointing authority, Filipinos deserve a good, competent, honest and capable DoH secretary,” he added.

Mr. Lacson said documentary and testimonial evidence from whistleblowers and resource persons were enough to indict corrupt officials responsible “for the systematic corrupt practices and malevolent acts that have practically dragged PhilHealth to its present financial death bed.”

The Senate committee found gross overpricing of equipment bought by PhilHealth and favoritism in the release of so-called interim reimbursement mechanism funds.

The mechanism allowed the agency to grant advance payments to health institutions by up to three months during the pandemic, even if only P1 billion had been liquidated.

Former PhilHealth anti-fraud legal officer Thorsson Keith earlier told senators at a hearing the agency’s top officials had pocketed P15 billion through fraudulent programs.

He said the sum came from overpriced equipment the agency had bought, as well as from a program that gave financial aid to health facilities amid a coronavirus pandemic. Mr. Keith called PhilHealth executive committee officers in-house mafia members.

Meanwhile, Senator Juan Miguel F. Zubiri filed a resolution asking the Office of the President to suspend top PhilHealth officials immediately.

This would stop them from tampering with evidence vital to separate probes by the National Bureau of Investigation, Commission on Audit (CoA) and Office of the Ombudsman.

“PhilHealth’s unwillingness to cooperate with regard to the submission of records could qualify as obstruction of justice that prevents the NBI from carrying out its responsibilities,” Mr. Zubiri said in the resolution.

He also cited the agency’s refusal or delay in the submission of documents and refusal to grant audit access to their record system.

PhilHealth officials on Tuesday admitted lying about the agency’s anomalous IT procurement program to avoid Senate detention for contempt.

During a Senate hearing, Mr. Lacson moved to cite PhilHealth Senior Vice-President Jovita V. Aragona and Acting Senior Manager Calixto I. Gabuya, Jr. for lying under oath.

He withdrew the motion after the officials admitted that they lied at the first hearing, where lawmakers found that PhilHealth officials had tried to buy obsolete network switches that were five times the price of newer models last year.

Former PhilHealth board member Alejandro L. Cabading said he had repeatedly flagged questionable budgetary items for the IT department, including a P2.1-billion budget proposal without details.

The agency nearly bought 15 units of an older model of a Cisco device used to manage computers in a local area network for P420,000 when a newer model costs only P62,000 each, Etrobal Laborte, who resigned as head executive assistant of PhilHealth President Ricardo Morales said earlier. 

PhilHealth officials including Mr. Morales have denied the allegations.

Mr. Duque, who attended the hearing for the first time on Tuesday, said the program was not exclusive to coronavirus facilities. He denied that some hospitals had been favored by the scheme.

Senator Ralph G. Recto questioned the request to allocate P10 billion under a bill seeking to give President Rodrigo R. Duterte special powers in the battle against the pandemic for coronavirus testing.

PhilHealth does not need more budget because it has about P200 billion in financial assets, Mr. Recto said, citing Deputy Treasurer Sharon P. Almanza.

Mr. Duterte earlier vowed to “finish off” PhilHealth officials involved in irregularities at the agency even if he had no plan to fire its chief.

He created a task force headed by the Department of Justice to investigate PhilHealth, including doing lifestyle checks and audits of its officials and employees.

The President also ordered the Office of the Special Assistant to the President Undersecretary Jesus Melchor Quitain to conduct a separate probe.

Mr. Morales earlier filed for a medical leave after he was diagnosed with cancer in February.

The PACC has said it had recommended the filing of charges against three dozen PhilHealth officials, which the Senate may adopt in its committee report.

PhilHealth Vice-President for Operations Augustus de Villa earlier quit his job but promised to cooperate with the congressional probe. — Charmaine A. Tadalan

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