The Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) has already released P500 million, or about half of its P1.1 billion debt to the Philippine Red Cross (PRC), as partial payment for the latter's COVID-19 testing expenses, PhilHealth President and CEO Dante Gierran confirmed on Tuesday.
The state health insurer said it would fast-track the processing of its remaining balance to PRC “following strict compliance to government accounting rules and regulations.”
Gierran said PhilHealth is using its funds prudently and the agency is not “playing on people’s lives.”
"PhilHealth takes exception to the insinuation that it is reckless and is playing on people’s lives. Its prudence in taking charge of its members’ hard-earned contributions is central to the state health insurer. Its exercise of judiciousness is to protect the people and their funds," Gierran said.
The delay in payment had infuriated Red Cross chairman Sen. Richard Gordon, saying PhilHealth has been "perfidious, reckless and they have been in violation of the contract so many times."
Gordon said Tuesday Gierran's fears apparently held back the release of PhilHealth's payment to the Red Cross.
"What I have heard (Gierran) say —and this is hearsay, OK?—When the President (Rodrigo Duterte) leaves, a new administration will come in and investigate me. So I should be careful, really careful," Gordon said in Filipino in an online interview.
"He may be being careful, but it's too reckless for the people who won't be tested (for the coronavirus)," the senator added.
"I am totally perplexed why (Gierran) is acting this way. I don't want to lose our friendship," Gordon said.
Gordon described Gierran—who replaced former PhilHealth chief Ricardo Morales, who resigned from the post in August—as a "new guy in the block surrounded by all kinds of snakes, jackals, and hyenas."
"He's afraid to move... I think he's scared to trust anyone (at PhilHealth). That's really difficult," Gordon said.
"I know Dante. I thought he was my friend. But when a friend lies to me and promises that he would pay, and he doesn't pay to the prejudice of our people, iba nang usapan 'yan," he added.
Gordon said PhilHealth should realize the dangerous impact of its unsettled debt is in terms of the COVID-19 testing in the country, as the senator responded to the OCTA Research Team’s observation that their impasse caused a 40- to 50-percent drop in reported COVID-19 cases in Metro Manila, Cavite, Laguna and Batangas.
"Coming from the UP, that's a very important observation that should be heard by PhilHealth," Gordon said. "These guys (in PhilHealth) are living in a bubble. They are living in a vacuum. They don't know that what they are doing is causing repercussions."
However, PhilHealth also gave the assurance that it would expedite the remaining payment to the accredited laboratories conducting RT-PCR tests for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) for the tests to resume "upon submission of complete documentary requirements.”
PhilHealth said last week it would settle its P1.1-billion debt to the PRC by Monday, Oct. 26, but it failed to release the payment on time.
The agency's internal review revealed that some provisions of the state insurer’s memorandum of agreement with the non-government humanitarian organization were "irregular if not outright illegal.”
"Even assuming that they doubt, magbayad sila then sue us kung talagang may kasalanan kami," Gordon said.
He said that Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra himself was among those who gave the go-signal to PhilHealth to pay its debt.
"Either nag-iingat masyado to the point of stupidity or somebody's getting a free pass. The lack of testing by the Red Cross has opened up opportunities for private laboratories," he said.
The senator said that he has been receiving complaints from some sources that those arriving in airports are being charged to up to P20,000 for a COVID-19 test package which comes with hotel accommodation.
Gordon did not give any conclusive remarks as to whether the PRC would terminate its deal with PhilHealth after the debt is settled.
But he said PhilHealth should be a better partner in the detection of COVID-19 cases in the country.
"They will really have to show good faith because they have shown us nothing but bad faith and a lot of pain, a lot of stress," he said.
"If I do open myself there, I want them to pay on time. There will never be an extension anymore. What the contract provides, they must follow," he added.
Gordon said "on time" means PhilHealth's payments should be released within three days after it receives the billing from the PRC.
The delayed payment has put a chartered flight of the PRC to China for the procurement of COVID-19 test kits on hold.
The PRC has processed more than 943,000 out of the over two million COVID-19 tests conducted in Metro Manila alone, Gordon said.
The senator said the PRC's hands are tied because it needs the full payment of the PhilHealth before it can resume accommodating the returning overseas Filipino workers, health workers, and those referred to mega swabbing facilities, among others who are covered by PhilHealth.
"Wala tayong pambili (We don’t have money to buy test kits). I cannot use money allocated for blood. I cannot use money allocated for disasters," Gordon said.
"I feel like a caged lion right now. I worry for our people tremendously. I lose sleep over it. Di ako nakakatulog because of this—not because I'm worried about the Red Cross, Red Cross will survive... I worry about the people, I worry about our economy," he added.
The outstanding P1.1 billion debt of the PhilHealth to Red Cross is equivalent to 303,000 COVID-19 tests conducted from September 1 up to mid-October.
Meanwhile, Gordon said on Monday the P100 million that PhilHealth paid in advance for COVID-19 testing is above board, contrary to the claim of some.
"They said they will pay P100 million, hindi advanced 'yun eh. Rolling account 'yun eh because obviously we cannot supply if we don't pay our suppliers," Gordon said.
"Para hindi tayo mapapatiran, ginagawa namin 'yun para 'di mauubos 'yung supply. They violated that. After paying P100 million, ang nag-advance baligtad—Red Cross ang nag-advance. Billions ang inadvance namin," Gordon.
"There's nothing illegal about it because unang-una, P100 million ang in-advance, na-test na 'yun, against almost a P1.5 billion na tinest namin ngayon na hindi pa nila binabayaran. Lopsided diba? Lugi ba sila? Kami ang lugi. Lugi ang tao," Gordon said.
Moreover, the senator said that the P100 million advance payment is covered by the two Bayanihan emergency laws.
Gordon likewise said PhilHealth had bought overpriced COVID-19 test kits in the earlier part of the pandemic response.
Gordon said the state health insurer has been convincing the PRC to lower the price for COVID-19 tests which is now at P3,500, and offered to let the organization use the test kits it has procured.
"Ipinipilit nila sa amin na tanggapin 'yung mga binili nila na talagang ang dami-dami baka mag-expire. Sasabihin ko na, overpriced. Ipinipilit nila sa amin. I don't want to be involved with anything that is overpriced baka pati kami maisama pa," he said.
The PhilHealth has been nagging the PRC regarding this offer about two to three months ago, Gordon said.
"Namili sila ng maraming test kits and I can understand noon umpisa, they bought an awful lot of test kits. Di ko na sasabihin kung ano ang presyo, bahala na ang gobyerno doon... Pinipilit nila 'yan. Two months ago pa 'yan, 3 months ago. Ibaba raw namin [ang presyo], ibibigay daw sa amin," he said.
Earlier, Surigao Del Norte Representative Robert Ace Barbers said the PRC has no legal basis to demand the supposed P1.1 billion debt of PhilHealth for the COVID-19 tests it has conducted.
Gordon, who leads the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, said he would leave it to other government authorities to investigate the matter.