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Corruption: The other pandemic

"It never took a pause."

In my May 25 column, I bemoaned the corruption which, that early in the global effort to arrest the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, was reportedly creeping in across the board. We were shocked to learn that immediately after the United States Congress passed a multi-trillion dollar pandemic response package which included a substantial sum for unemployment benefits for laid off workers, reports of large sums being siphoned off by crooked personnel of the implementing agencies at national and local levels surfaced.

Even tightly controlled states like Russia and Iran were not spared with reports about well connected individuals and groups allegedly cornering purchases of much-needed ventilators, PPEs and other medical equipment. Even in countries such as Uganda and Cameroon, corruption reared its ugly head as reports of citizens bribing officials to evade quarantine were also recorded. Worse, in Kenya, a reported shipment of six million face masks from Germany for use by the country’s health workers could not be accounted for immediately after landing at the airport.

We were hoping then that the same unbridled corruption would not happen here given President Duterte’s aversion to even just “whiffs of corruption.” Besides, I thought that with the whole country in lockdown, the usual corrupt operations with lots of moving parts,would be harder to undertake thus easier to track and wallop.

Well, it turns out corruption never took a pause. The Senate Committee of the Whole hearings the week before confirmed that the whispers of corruption were true and this time in high places. Not just the pinching of some amounts for recipients of the social amelioration program (SAP) by local officials. Not the padding of the SAP recipients list. Not the selling of quarantine passes. Not the selling of donated food and medical supplies and equipment (although I am told this scheme continues to this day).

During that hearing, Senator Panfilo Lacson angrily noted that billions may have been pocketed by the wrongdoers from the purchase of medical supplies and equipment from PPEs to swabbing materials to molecular laboratories and even masks. He specifically cited the overpricing of nucleic acid extractors which were bought by the DoH for $32 for each unit which the private hospitals and some NGOs bought for $18 from the same supplier, Sansure China. This claim was corroborated by Senator Grace Poe who had earlier exposed the overpricing of the one million sets of PPEs bought by the DoH by as much as P1.4 billion.

It also turned out that the Cavite provincial government was able to buy 300,000 test kits of the same brand and from the same DoH supplier for less than P351 million. That overprice was only for the kits. If one includes the overprice for the purchase of a very specific brand of nucleic acid extractors which runs into millions of dollars per unit, then you end up siphoning off even more moolah from the pandemic response budget which should have benefitted more citizens. Grabe. That the DoH washed its hands of these condemnable transactions made things even worse. Secretary Duque claimed, without even batting an eyelash, that the procurement was done by the DBM through its Procurement Service (PS) yet affirmed that ultimately control and supervision of the entire process from the writing of the terms of purchase (ToP/ToR) up to the acceptance of delivery were all coordinated with him and his underlings. So much for finger pointing.

In that same hearing, Senate Minority Leader Frank Drilon admonished the government health insurance agency, PhilHealth, to ensure that reimbursables for Covid testing and even for other covered expenses of members are properly and responsibly worked out. He said this after PhilHealth suddenly halved its earlier case rate for COVID testing from P8125 per test to just P4250 in just a matter of days. So, at that time even as the senators admonished all concerned that they will not initiate any investigations on these contemptuous practices in deference to the ongoing efforts to combat the pandemic, Senator Lacson promised there would be a time for reckoning.

Well, that time of reckoning has come just a little over two months from the last hearing. In the last week, hearings in both houses of Congress have unearthed even more contemptuous operations not only in the DoH but in its health insurance and main payment provider, PhilHealth. It turns out that the latter has allocated some P30 billion for the government’s Covid 19 response plan under an Interim Reimbursement Mechanism (IRM). As the name implies, the agency reimburses payments for all kinds of Covid 19 related cases – from testing to hospitalization. In a bid to hasten payments and not over burden hospitals and testing centers, the agency decided to allocate and disburse funds to the health centers subject to liquidation. In just a matter of months, the agency has paid out or set aside more than half of the IRM funds with lots of payables more on line. The bleeding has been such that no less than PhilHealth President Ricardo Morales, a retired military officer, has admitted that corruption has been so embedded in the agency it will probably take years and loads of exertions at all levels to eradicate it. Morales himself admitted that for 2019 alone close to P15 billion has been lost to corruption.

Like the DoH and this special COVID response procurement and payments system, the PhilHealth’s corrupt and corrupting operations has been so pervasive that management divulged during the hearings that its actuarial life is almost non-existent and will probably run out of funds by next year.

This is a disaster which will probably be more painful to all of us than the COVID outbreak. At least, as far as this pandemic is concerned, we still have a number of options to contain and successfully reverse the situation. PhilHealth may not be as solvable.

In this case, we have to seriously consider its total overhaul, not just change of leadership. The agency has had four leadership changes during this administration and look where we are. In even more troubled straits. To think that under the Universal Health Care (UHC) law, PhilHealth plays a very pivotal role in the delivery of proper and affordable health care for all. Under its present form, that may not prosper at all. Without a doubt, a surgical operation needs to be done.

Like what we did with the Central Bank (CB) when its finances and standing became untenable, its corporate life was snapped and from its ashes rose the now robust Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP). That initiative should include a review of the UHC to align our goals of health care for all to the realities of how to fund that aspiration. That means aligning the enhancement of the public health system through responsible and judicious use of the annual appropriations provided for health care with a functioning and a responsive health care insurance plan which does away with the embedded problems which the current system suffers from. Properly set up, this twin approaches to health care delivery may just be the answer to providing the best, affordable service for our people while minimizing if not completely eradicating corrupt and corrupting practices from the premises.

Topics: Jonathan Dela Cruz , corruption , COVID-19 pandemic
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