President Rodrigo Duterte will not fire Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) president Ricardo Morales unless there is evidence of his involvement in corruption in the agency, Palace spokesman Harry Roque said on Wednesday.
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Morales still has the President’s trust and confidence, Roque said.
“If there’s evidence that would affect his trust and confidence, of course, it will change,” he added.
The Senate, the Office of the President (OP), and the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission are all conducting investigations on allegations of corruption in PhilHealth, a government corporation attached to the Department of Health (DOH).
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the DOH said it would be at a disadvantage if Health Secretary Francisco Duque III is fired.
Duque also has supervisory control over PhilHealth as chairman of the government firm’s board of directors.
In an interview on ANC, Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire acknowledged there were “a lot of gaps” in government efforts to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under Duque, the DOH accredited 98 laboratories that can run nearly 30,000 coronavirus tests daily and had built thousands of quarantine facilities for patients, Vergeire said.
“I think it will really be to the disadvantage of our government and of course the country if we are going to change leadership in the middle of this pandemic,” Vergeire said.
Roque said he was hoping that the three bodies will produce the evidence that President Duterte was waiting for to decide on the fate of the PhilHealth chief.
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate are looking into alleged irregularities inside PhilHealth.
“I’m hoping that all these investigations will document the evidence that the President wants to see,” he said.
He said the President would also prompt his own office to hasten its investigation.
Roque said Morales admitted in the Senate hearing that he was unable to stop corruption in PhilHealth, something that was expected of him when he was appointed by President Duterte last year.
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However, Roque said he has no evidence that Morales is corrupt.
“But when he was placed there by the President to replace a previous board and a previous president because of the WellMed scam, our expectation was [that] he will take concrete steps to rid the agency of corruption,” Roque said, referring to a previous scandal in which payments were made for bogus dialysis treatments.
On Wednesday, Senator Panfilo Lacson said there were only two possibilities—Morales either did nothing or he was stupid.
In a virtual interview with reporters, Lacson said it’s likely that Morales did not act amid all the corruption issues, allegations or he opted to remain stupid for a year as he was mislea or co-opted.
“When we said co-opted, that’s even worse. It means, you were with them.... I don’t see a third possibility,” he added.
Grilled by senators Tuesday, Morales said the P10.3 billion of PhilHealth funds could have been lost to fraud in 2019. But he strongly denied he was a coddler of corrupt officials.
Resigned anti-fraud legal officer Thorrsson Montes Keith, however, testified that PhilHealth officials pocketed P15 billion in the agency’s funds using several schemes.
Meanwhile, Lacson said PhilHealth head executive assistant Estrobal Laborte, one of their witnesses in the anomalies, backed out due to security concerns. He was initially logged in during the video conference but eventually logged out of the online meeting.
Lacson said he was later informed by his staff that Laborte opted not to participate in the chamber’s hearing due to security reasons.
The senator said Laborte told him he felt like there are people trailing him.
But Lacson said they can send a subpoena to compel Laborte to attend the next hearing.
Lacson on Wednesday said the Senate will is provide security for whistleblowers if they request it.
The senator also said he is inclined to recommend to the Senate Committee of the Whole to grant legislative immunity and security to witnesses in the Senate probe.
Earlier, Philhealth bard member Alejandro Cabading requested legislative immunity after he revealed names of supposed “mafia” members during Tuesday’s hearing.
A PhilHealth executive being accused of membership in the mafia warned Cabading that he may take legal action if he fails to substantiate his claim.
Senator Risa Hontiveros urged the DOH and PhilHealth to convene an anti-overpricing body required by law to ensure greater transparency and cut down corruption and fraud in the state insurer’s operations.
Hontiveros said PhilHealth’s internal mechanisms for transparency and accountability must be drastically updated and fully enforced so that every peso in the agency is actually used to help Filipinos, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“PhilHealth’s failure to fully enforce anti-corruption measures has potentially led to the loss of billions. We must ensure reformations within PhilHealth that will make them worthy of the taxes of the people, especially because of their crucial role in universal health care,” she said.
To help curb overspending by PhilHealth, Hontiveros said that DOH, PhilHealth and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) should immediately convene the Independent Price Negotiation Board, an oversight body mandated by the Universal Health Care Law (RA 11223).
Noting the claims of PhilHealth that they “potentially lost” P10.2 billion in 2019 and are projected to lose double that in 2020 to fraud and false claims, Hontiveros, an author of the law, said the Independent Price Negotiation Board is empowered to negotiate with suppliers over prices of medical supplies and new technology needed by health care providers accredited under the DOH. She said the treatment of COVID-19 can be standardized and better monitored through the board.
“The Secretary has been working so hard since the start. He has been able to guide the whole Department of Health in this response… Even though there have been a lot of gaps, we all know that it is not just the Secretary but also this not just really DOH’s fight, it is the fight of the whole country, it is the fight of the whole government,” Vergeire said.
“We should all try to move forward, we should all try to help each other, we should all try to do our responsibility in curbing this pandemic,” she said.
“We support the Secretary. His leadership has brought us here where we are right now. We have done a lot already for this response. No government is ever prepared for this kind of pandemic,” she added.
Several senators recently called again for Duque’s resignation after COVID-19 cases surged past 100,000 this weekend and prompted the return of stricter lockdown measures in Metro Manila and four surrounding provinces.
Former Health secretary Espernaza Cabral said Tuesday Duque’s decision to resign or not would ultimately depend on “the limits of his delicadeza” or sense of propriety.
In an interview on ANC, Cabral cited cases in Japan where government officials would quit their jobs for reasons that might be considered “flimsy” here.
Cabral also said Duque should show more “decisiveness” as head of the Philippine government’s task force on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Several organizations of doctors, nurses and hospitals have called for Duque’s immediate resignation for allegedly mishandling the government’s pandemic response.
However, President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly defended Duque, arguing that the Health secretary did not “import” the virus to the Philippines.
With the President refusing to sack him despite the perceived blunders, Duque should do some “soul-searching” and consider stepping down, Senator Nancy Binay said on Tuesday.
Duque chairs the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases, but the government’s action plan on the pandemic is implemented largely by retired military generals.
Cabral, who had been occasionally consulted by the task force, rejected the idea that these former generals, such as Secretaru Carlito Galvez, were “overpowering” Duque.
As chief implementor of the government’s policy on COVID-19, Galvez “defers” to Duque, who should “exercise more decisiveness and more leadership,” said Cabral.
“He can do a better job. He can do a better job leading. He can do a better job communicating,” Cabral said.
Metro Manila and neighboring provinces returned to stricter lockdowns to slow down virus transmission and allow hospitals to cope, as total cases surpassed the 100,000 mark.
On the first day of the modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ), Duque and other task force members went to Navotas City to check on efforts there to manage COVID-19 cases.
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