President Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to bring down the full force of the law on corrupt officials and personnel of the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth).
READ: Recto: Constant audit, appointment of resident Ombudsman to prevent corruption at PhilHealth
"Itong sa PhilHealth, yayariin ko kayo. Maniwala kayo," the President said Monday night, amid allegations that the government health firm’s officials pocketed as much as P15 billion in public funds through various anomalous transactions.
"Yung mga inosente, continue working. Kung nakalusot kayo sa ibang presidente, dito sa akin sadsad talaga kayo," added Duterte.
The President has refused to fire embattled PhilHealth chief Ricardo Morales, but he formed a task force to investigate the corruption allegations.
The task force is empowered to conduct lifestyle checks on key PhilHealth personnel and examine their financial transactions, as well as file administrative and anti-graft cases and order preventive suspension as may be warranted.
This developed as Morales’ erstwhile top aide, former Marine Col. Etrobal Laborte, will shed light on the alleged corruption schemes in Philhealth in the next Senate hearing, multiple sources said Monday.
Laborte has decided to attend Tuesday's hearing after initially withdrawing from testifying in the Senate last week, the sources said.
"The one or two new witnesses are ready to come out now after they heard the [first] hearing and the kind of excuses given," one source told ABS-CBN News in a report.
"Mabigat ang bibitawan nito. Mabigat ang mga ebidensya nito (His allegations are weighty. The evidence he has also holds a lot of weight)," the source told ABS-CBN, while declining to give more details about Laborte's expected expose.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson earlier said Laborte "knows a lot" about the alleged corruption schemes in PhilHealth, as he was the one who flagged "discrepancies" in the budget.
Laborte has been researching alleged irregularities in the government's health corporation, and had provided documents that the Senate used in the first hearing, Lacson told reporters in an online press conference last week.
Laborte resigned as Morales' head executive assistant in July, expressing a desire to enroll in postgraduate studies.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III, who said Laborte has already requested for security, also told Morales on Monday that "if you cannot stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."
Morales had complained that the Senate leader violated his right to privacy by revealing he has cancer.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Monday said Morales was a "guardian of integrity" during his time in the armed forces and could have been "overwhelmed" by the alleged corruption in PhilHealth.Lorenzana said he did not believe that his fellow retired military general was involved in anomalies in the agency.
"I cannot also reconcile the fact that Dick Morales was the guardian of integrity during his time in the service and now here... I know him personally and I don’t think he has been involved in the anomalies here," Lorenzana told ANC.
Morales on Monday said he thought the Senate would simply announce that he could not attend the next hearing on allegations of corruption at PhilHealth because of “a health condition,” instead of saying he was being treated for cancer.
A PhilHealth statement issued on Sunday said Morales had intended to attend the Senate hearing on Aug. 11, but had a scheduled chemotherapy session.
"Because of his immunocompromised state as he has been suffering from lymphoma, Morales submitted his medical certificate, as required. He requested the Senate to allow him to testify online instead of his physical presence as he is prone to infections," the PhilHealth statement said.
Morales' oncologist reportedly sent a medical certificate to the Senate Committee of the Whole Friday night.
“As president and chief executive, it is my duty to represent the corporation while still physically capable. I regret that my privacy was not respected," Morales later said.
Diagnosed with cancer in February, the 67-year-old Morales has been undergoing chemotherapy, the PhilHealth statement said. He also continues to hold office against medical advice of his doctor to take a leave from work. He has since gone on medical leave.
But Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said all officials who are implicated in the multibillion-peso anomalies at PhilHealth should go on leave.
Guevarra, who chairs Task Force PhilHealth, was referring to the 36 high-ranking and low-ranking officials earlier recommended by the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission to be charged and be dismissed for their alleged involvement in various irregularities in the agency.
READ: 36 tied to PhilHealth mess
Guevarra said those whose operations are currently under investigation or special audit must also vacate their post to give way to an impartial investigation.
“I hope they would voluntarily take a leave while their agency is under intense investigation,” Guevarra said in a text message.
“If they are not hiding anything, they can take a leave of absence to enable the investigators or auditors to freely complete their inquiry or examination,” Guevarra said.
READ: PhilHealth probe: No turning back amid execs' health woes
At the same time, Guevarra said the Data Privacy Act may not be used to hinder the conduct of legitimate government investigations.
The Justice secretary made the statement as he convened the task force that would conduct a thorough probe into the anomalies and corruption in the government-run insurance provider.
The task force is composed of representatives from the Office of the Ombudsman, Commission on Audit (CoA), Civil Service Commission (CSC), Office of the Executive Secretary (OES), Office of the Special Assistant to the President and the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC).
It was given 30 days to conduct an investigation including lifestyle checks on officials of PhilHealth and to submit its report and recommendations to President Duterte.
Malacanang said the President was already exasperated over persistent allegations of corruption in PhilHealth after Morales admitted during a Senate hearing that about P10.2 billion of the agency’s budget was “potentially lost” to fraudulent transactions and schemes in 2019.
Guevarra, since the task force was given only 30 days to come up with a recommendation, thus, it would zero in on alleged anomalies that are already under investigation by other agencies.
“I will personally oversee its operation to ensure coordinated government action, with support from my undersecretaries and assistant secretaries and a team of DOJ lawyers acting as secretariat,” he said.
Guevarra said the members of the task force are identifying which specific investigations or audits, other than the Wellmed issue, could be reasonably accomplished within the limited period given to the task force.
Wellmed was a dialysis center implicated in millions of pesos in fraudulent claims for dialysis and other medical treatment.
In August 2019, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) filed criminal cases against 21 officials and employees of PhilHealth before the DOJ in connection with the fraudulent claims for payment of dialysis and other medical treatment of Philhealth members and beneficiaries.
The respondents, according to the NBI, gave unwarranted benefits to Wellmed in violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.
Senator Christopher Go, chairman of the Senate committee on health, said the President was determined to end the deeply rooted and systemic corruption in government, particularly in PhilHealth.
Go urged all agencies of government to support the efforts of the recently created task force to investigate the allegations of corruption.
In the House, a party-list legislator on Monday said PhilHealth must undergo “thorough financial checkup” and “cleansing” before the government considers any sort of bailout for the troubled state insurer.
“PhilHealth should come clean about its current financial standing and must be willing to go through a cleansing process to rid the agency of corrupt officials and employees prior to any government bailout,” Assistant Majority Leader and Bagong Henerasyon Rep. Bernadette Herrera said.
Herrera's statement came after presidential spokesman Harry Roque announced that the government was ready to provide funding to ensure the survival of PhilHealth, which is tasked with implementing the Universal Health Care (UHC) Act of 2019.
As one of the authors of the UHC law in Congress, Herrera welcomed the government’s assurance, saying it “helps to allay concerns that the corruption scandal and funding problems hounding PhilHealth would delay the law’s implementation.”
“We cannot afford any delay in the implementation of the law, which guarantees equitable access to quality and affordable health care services for all Filipinos,” Herrera said.
Quezon City Rep. Alfred Vargas, meanwhile, renewed his call for a deeper congressional investigation into the alleged anomalies in
PhilHealth’s operations, noting that the revelation in a recent Senate hearing that Philhealth’s reserve funds will run out by next year is yet another proof of rampant mismanagement and corruption within the agency.
He said PhilHealth’s admission of its looming deficit shows the necessity for congressional oversight to find out what went wrong.
"PhilHealth cannot solely blame the rapid depletion of its actuarial life on the COVID-19 pandemic. It should have a long-term fiscal management plan," said Vargas, vice chairman of the House committee on appropriations.
"Only five months have passed since the pandemic hit us. The cancer of corruption within PhilHealth has been going on for so long. It is appalling to think that millions of Filipinos are unable to access quality health care because some government officials are making PhilHealth their cash cow," he added.
PhilHealth acting senior vice president for actuarial services Nerissa Santiago recently told a Senate hearing that the state-run insurance firm may cease to exist by 2022 due to the "double impact” of decreasing collections and increasing payouts for the hospitalization of COVID-19 patients.
Earlier, Morales said the implementation of UHC and expansion of primary health benefits may have to be delayed as the pandemic dealt a big blow to PhilHealth’s finances and capacity to pay for the health care services of its members.
Amid its financial troubles, PhilHealth was rocked with corruption scandals involving P15 billion supposedly pocketed by a “mafia” operating within the corporation and the alleged overpriced purchase of an IT system worth over P2 billion.
Progressive groups on Monday have called on the Duterte administration to hold accountable ranking PhilHealth officials for losses due to corruption.
“These unscrupulous military officials were all appointed by no less than the chief executive; and despite their tainted service records, President Duterte has got them covered,” said fisherfolk group Pamalakaya chairperson Fernando Hicap, in a statement.
During the Senate hearing, Philhealth officials were questioned for the P2.1 billion information technology project, the release of funds under its Interim Reimbursement Mechanism, and the supposed manipulation of its financial statements.
Earlier into the pandemic, PhilHealth was criticized for its “new” COVID-19 package, which was way below the reported costs of hospitalization. It also faced a public backlash over overpriced COVID-19 testing kits.
Kilusang Mayo Uno said heads must roll over the alleged corruption issue.
“This is a clear display of callousness from corrupt politicians as they collect taxpayer’s money to enrich themselves amid a worsening pandemic. The people are angry because it is their money, and the government should act quickly,” KMU chairman Elmer Labog said.
Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas Chairpman Danilo Ramos said the corruption in PhilHealth is also a disservice to health workers who are demanding protective equipment, and sufficient pay, and are working round-the-clock in caring for COVID-19 patients.
“Philhealth’s corrupt officials, on the other hand, are blatantly defrauding the agency and stealing members’ hard-earned money. We encourage Philhealth employees to expose other corrupt acts in the company,” he added.
In a statement, Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate said President Duterte had borrowed a total of P2.093 trillion – both domestic and foreign – in the first six months of the year.
The President, he said, cannot declare that the government no longer has funds because it has already “buried us in billions of pesos in loans.”
READ: PhilHealth's Morales, De Jesus to physically skip Senate probe due to health conditions