More PhilHealth heads to roll

Duque not off the hook yet as probers dig deeper into the agency's mess

More heads are expected to roll at the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) as a task force commissioned by President Rodrigo Duterte looks deeper into the complicity of its officials and board members, Malacanang said Tuesday.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, as board chairman of the state health insurer, is not off the hook yet, even though his name was not included on the list of seven officials facing administrative and criminal charges submitted by Task Force PhilHealth to the President on Monday.

“This is only the beginning. The report stated the investigation of the NBI (National Bureau on Investigation) and DOJ (Department of Justice) will continue. The investigation of the Ombudsman will also continue,” Palace spokesman Harry Roque said Tuesday.

Roque was referring to the 177-page preliminary report submitted by the Justice Department-led task force looking into allegations of corruption in PhilHealth.

On Monday, the President approved the recommendations of the task force to file charges against former PhilHealth president Ricardo Morales and other senior officials over the alleged anomalies in the agency.

Morales on Tuesday denied any wrongdoing, as his legal spokesman Arnedo Valera said the former PhilHealth chief “invokes at this time his basic Constitutional right of presumption of Innocence.”

“Our client is a man of integrity and completely denies any wrongdoings and the criminal charges against him,” Valera said.

“His attorneys… will vigorously defend Gen. Morales and will appropriately respond to the criminal complaints either before the Department of Justice and or before the Ombudsman,” he added.

The task force recommended that the PhilHealth officials be held liable for violating the country’s anti-graft law, malversation of public funds, gross misconduct, and gross neglect of duty, among others, in connection with the alleged irregularities in the procurement of information and communications technology equipment and disbursements through its interim reimbursement mechanism (IRM).

PhilHealth officials have shown negligence in handling the funds of the state firm and failed to investigate and prosecute wrongdoing, the report said.

The task force did not include Duque or PhilHealth senior vice president for legal sector Rodolfo del Rosario, but Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the report submitted to the President was only preliminary and that further investigation would be conducted to determine who else should be held liable.

“Our report is about our initial findings only. Further investigation will be conducted and more people may be charged,” Guevarra said, in a text message.

“The Task Force noted that its composite teams are still continuing with the investigations to determine the liability of others involved in similar or other wrongful practices in the PhilHealth,” the task force said in a statement.

“Persons who are supposed to set the policies and operational guidelines for the management of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation – the board of directors and the executive committee – have not shown the due diligence required of them in the discharge of their duties, particularly in the disbursement of the National Health Insurance Fund,” Roque said.

He said the PhilHealth officials’ “lack of diligence and due care” has allegedly been shown in their approval and implementation of the IRM without sufficient standards.

They also allegedly approved PhilHealth’s ICT budget based on a mere representation by the senior vice president, who claimed the management information system would collapse unless such budget was approved.

The PhilHealth officials also supposedly adopted corporate policies and practices that “fail to check, investigate, prosecute and penalize the wrongdoing of PhilHealth personnel as well as health care institutions and professionals,” Roque said.

He said the task force also found that the PhilHealth executive committee and board showed “lack of due care, if not outright negligence, in approving and implementing the IRM.” The IRM fund releases were rushed even though the circular implementing the scheme was not yet effective.

“In converting the IRM into a special privilege, the circular removed the need for prior board approval. It likewise removed a number of requirements previously imposed upon HCIs (health care institutions) such as survey and post-survey requirements,” the report said.

These requirements were designed to assess the condition of the HCI and centralize the evaluation of IRM fund beneficiaries.

The task force also found that IRM fund releases were made despite the absence of mechanisms to monitor fund utilization and liquidation, and without taxes being withheld.

Roque said the members of the PhilHealth executive committee also concealed important information or documents to obtain board approval on ICT procurement.

The members of the executive committee proposed to the board a P734-million budget for the procurement of ICT resources items for 2020 but the items were neither included in PhiHealth’s Information System Strategic Plan (ISSP) nor approved by the Department of Information and Communications Technology as required by law.

The task force also discovered the Internal Audit Report (IAR) that showed discrepancies or inconsistencies in the PhilHealth’s inventory of hardware and software was also not presented to the board.

The board also supposedly approved a proposal to procure network switches for the PhilHealth Regional Office at the National Capital Region (PRO NCR) despite a Commission on Audit (COA) report that 24 similar switches have not been used.

Roque said the task force probe also showed PhilHealth management adopted “questionable policies and weak enforcement practices that failed to check, investigate, prosecute, and penalize wrongdoing.”

It said the PhilHealth management has adopted a policy towards settlement of claims without accountability, and even granted “wholesale amnesty” in favor of HCIs with claims that appear to be no longer enforceable against the corporation.

Cases involving fictitious crediting of remittances were allegedly “settled,” Roque said.

Instead of complying with a court decision on the penalty of suspension on six HCIs, the PhilHealth board merely imposed fines. The board also withheld suspension and did not pursue legal action against 20 HCIs in exchange for payment of fines.

The task force also discovered the PhilHealth board approved the amnesty to HCIs whose claims had been denied on account of late filing or re-filing. The total claims included in the amnesty reached more than P687 million.

Thousands of cases involving HCIs and PhilHealth employees have not yet been filed, the report said.

Those recommended to be criminally charged were Morales, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Arnel De Jesus, Senior Vice President Jovita V. Aragona, Chief Information Officer and Head of the Information Management Sector, Senior Vice President Renato Limsiaco, Jr., Senior Vice President Israel Francis A. Pargas of the Health Financial Policy Sector, Officer in Charge Calixto Gabuya, Jr. and Division Chief Bobby A. Crisostomo.

Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete said charges would be filed against those named in the report as soon as the complaints and the collation of supporting documents are finalized.

He said criminal and administrative cases would be filed either with the Office of the Ombudsman, with prosecutors or with PhilHealth depending on the crime committed and the rank of the respondent.

The DOJ declined to furnish the media a copy of its report, saying it contains information on ongoing investigation by member-agencies of the task force.

President Duterte created Task Force PhilHealth with a mandate of conducting a full investigation into allegations of widespread corruption and irregularities at PhilHealth.

It has representatives from the Office of the Ombudsman, the Commission on Audit (COA), the Civil Service Commission (CSC) and the Office of the President (OP) . The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) among other agencies support the task force.

The panel has been authorized to look into PhilHealth’s finances, conduct lifestyle checks, and impose preventive suspension of PhilHealth officials.

PhilHealth whistleblower and former anti-fraud officer Thorrson Montes Keith said Senator Richard Gordon should be included in the list to be charged, but the senator dismissed the accusation as “a canard” and described Keith as “a spurious source.”

In an interview on ABS-CBN’s TeleRadyo, Keith said the Philippine Red Cross, which Gordon chairs, has been receiving payments from PhilHealth for the COVID-19 tests it has been administering to returning Filipino migrant workers and some frontliners.

Keith, who resigned in July over alleged widespread corruption in the agency, said he did not bring up the issue concerning Gordon before the Senate as the latter is a member of Senate.

“But the evidence against him is very clear,” he said in Filipino.

Gordon says PhilHealth has deposited initial payments to PRC for the latter's COVID-19 testing activities, but failed to remit more after the initial fund was depleted.

On Sept. 6, Dr. Ramon Murillo, Assistant Secretary General of PRC, said the amount PhilHealth owes the organization has ballooned to P878.7 million, of which, P781.4 million is already overdue.

Gordon, in an interview with ANC last month, said, "whatever he says against the Red Cross is a canard."

Gordon said the testing activities of PRC is legally allowed, particularly the Bayanihan 1 law and Universal Health Care law.

"By the way, for the record, I never asked that the Red Cross do the testing. They all came to me... And we signed an agreement. Nobody put a gun to their heads," he said.

Gordon also said that the PRC's testing fee is the lowest, at P3,500.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III said he was surprised that the task force did not include Duque.

“No Duque? No Del Rosario? I’m dumbfounded! Article 217 (Malversation) of the [Revised Penal Code] is very clear,” Sotto said in a Viber message to reporters.

The Senate Committee of the Whole chaired by Sotto recommended the filing of graft and malversation charges against Duque and several other officials over the allegedly questionable release of billions of funds through PhilHealth’s emergency cash advance measure.

The DOJ-led task force just urged Duterte to “strongly admonish and remind” Duque and other ex-officio members of the PhilHealth board of the “grave consequences of action or inaction.”

But Sotto said those who were not implicated by the task force are not off the hook yet since the Ombudsman may still find them responsible.

Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto supported the assertion of Sotto that Duque as head of the Philhealth Board is still liable for malversation.

“That is correct, at the very least that should have been included in the DOJ report,” Recto said.

Senator Risa Hontiveros said she was disappointed with the decision of the task force.

"If it's true that we believe in the right of every Filipino to health and the right to have a clean government, let us include Duque in the charges," she said.

A party-list lawmaker said those listed in the report should be prevented from going abroad and urged the Justice Department to secure computers and files at PhilHealth to make sure that evidence and witnesses do not vanish.

Assistant Majority Leader and Bagong Henerasyon Rep. Bernadette Herrera said no one in PhilHealth should be able to use “the worn-out defense of presumption of regularity” since corruption at the agency could deal a serious blow to the country’s capability to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

ACT-CIS Rep. Jocelyn Tulfo, meanwhile, broached the idea of hospital arrest for Morales, who is being treated for cancer.

At the same time, Tulfo said Duque should be held accountable and liable "for the continuing disaster we have come to know by the name PhilHealth."

"We do not merely want him out of PhilHealth. He should be investigated by the Ombudsman for the anomalies that have plagued PhilHealth long before the COVID-19 pandemic," Tulfo said.

Topics: Philippine Health Insurance Corp , Francisco Duque III , COVID-19 , Bernadette Herrera , Rodrigo Duterte , Corruption , Internal Audit Report
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