‘Trusted’ Duque faces Palace, Senate probes
MANILA, Philippines — The Senate blue ribbon committee will begin next week its inquiry into the alleged irregularities hounding Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) and the allegations of conflict of interest against Health Secretary Francisco Duque III.
Malacañang will also investigate allegations of conflict of interest against Duque although he still enjoys the trust and confidence of President Duterte, according to presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo.
Duque also maintained on Tuesday that he still had the President’s trust and confidence.
Sen. Richard Gordon, blue ribbon committee chair, said he had been looking into the issues concerning PhilHealth before the 18th Congress opened and had met with its officials.
Gordon said he would delve into the alleged syndicates in the agency, as well as cases of overpayment it had made.
“They said there was a syndicate there, that whoever sits to lead it would be given a hard time when he changes its practices. That is what I’m interested in because that destroys the agency,” he told reporters.
He will also look into cases of forcing patients to be confined in hospitals so that bigger PhilHealth payments would be made. “We should not take that lightly because the people’s money is involved, and the people depend on PhilHealth,” he said.
“We’ve had difficulty passing laws to fund it, and they would just destroy it,” Gordon said.
Allegations of fraud have been coming out against PhilHealth in recent weeks. Whistleblowers and sources from within have accused the state health insurance company of paying fraudulent claims, leading to huge losses.
Duques to be summoned
One example was WellMed Dialysis Center, whose former employees had accused it of filing claims for “ghost dialysis” treatments, using the names of patients who had died.
As for Duque, whom Sen. Panfilo Lacson accused of conflict of interest after a company owned by his family bagged contracts with the Department of Health (DOH), Gordon said he would be called to the inquiry and would be given a fair shake.
Duque’s relatives, who served as officials of Doctors Pharmaceuticals Inc. (DPI), would be invited as well.
“It’s a fair allegation. The public has a right to know if there was really a conflict of interest. I commend Senator Lacson for that but we must hear the other side, because otherwise nobody would enter government service,” Gordon said.
The question of what constitutes conflict of interest must be made clear, he said. “If you divested, are you totally exculpated?” he asked.
To be liable, it must be shown that an official favored a relative, Gordon said, adding that if DPI’s contract was already ongoing when Duque was appointed to the DOH, there was nothing he could have done about it and he could justify it.
“So long as he did not participate in that contract, that contract is good. Offhand. I’m being careful here,” Gordon said.
Asked if Duque should have terminated his family’s contract out of a sense of propriety, the senator said “delicadeza is not part of the law.”
“The issue is still, did he have active engagement with the corporation? Did he have active engagement and tell his people to help someone, to favor someone? Any scintilla of a doubt must be settled,” he said.
Sold to Siguion Reyna
Duque earlier said he had “totally disassociated” himself from DPI after selling his minority share in 2005 to Leonardo Siguion Reyna, before his assumption as health chief during the Arroyo administration.
According to Duque, he would want to speak with Lacson to clear the air and explain his side. He has been looking for an intermediary, the secretary said.
“Hopefully, [we’ll] help one another for the sake of government and for the sake of public service,” Duque said.
In a privilege speech on Monday, Lacson also decried how PhilHealth was losing funds due to overpayments and other fraud schemes.
Lacson reiterated accusations of impropriety and conflict of interest against Duque, who serves as PhilHealth ex-officio chair.
The charges stemmed from earlier reports that the state insurance firm’s regional office in Dagupan City was leasing a building of a company owned by Duque’s family.
The lease contract was the basis for the plunder and graft charges filed against the health secretary and his brother Gonzalo last month in the Office of the Ombudsman by parents of alleged victims of the Dengvaxia vaccine.
On Monday, Gonzalo took his oath as administrator of the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA).
Panelo said that it was “standard operating procedure” for Malacañang to look into any complaint against any Cabinet official and that the probe was ongoing.
“Until such time that there is no definite finding of any act which is in violation of the law, the secretary of health still has the trust and confidence of the President,” Panelo said.
Panelo said the appointment of Duque’s brother to the PCA was not an issue of conflict, since Gonzalo was named because of his competence and management skills.
But a farmers group questioned the appointment of Gonzalo as the primary overseer of the P100-billion coconut levy fund.
“How can we welcome an appointee who is facing plunder charge? It is difficult to fathom President Duterte’s appointment of Gonzalo Duque to manage the Philippine Coconut Authority,” said Jansept Geronimo, spokesperson of Kilusan Para sa Tunay na Repormang Agraryo at Katarungang Panlipunan.—With reports from Julie M. Aurelio, Jovic Yee and Delfin T. Mallari Jr.
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