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‘THEY KNOW WHO THEY ARE’

DOJ to PhilHealth officials under investigation: Go on leave

Menardo Guevarra at the Department of Justice

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra. (File photo by Philippine Daily Inquirer)

MANILA, Philippines — Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Monday said Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) officials whose operations were under investigation or special audit should go on leave while the interagency task force led by the Department of Justice (DOJ) was investigating alleged irregularities in the state-run health insurance company.

“They know who they are. If they are not hiding anything, they can take a leave of absence to enable the investigators/auditors to freely complete their inquiry or examination,” Guevarra said after PhilHealth President and Chief Executive Officer Ricardo Morales announced his medical leave.

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“I hope they volunteer to go on leave while their agency is under intense investigation,” Guevarra added.

Coordinated action

He said he would personally oversee the operation of the interagency task force “to ensure a coordinated action.”

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The DOJ team met on Monday to draw up a strategy for approval of the task force.

“The members of the task force are presently identifying which specific investigations or audits, other than on the WellMed issue, could be reasonably accomplished within the limited period given to the task force,” Guevarra said, referring to the dialysis scam that cost PhilHealth billions of pesos in allegedly fraudulent transactions.

President Rodrigo Duterte ordered an investigation into allegations of corruption in PhilHealth after an inquiry by the Senate committee of the whole that opened last week heard testimony from a resigned antifraud officer that key officials of the health insurer had been bleeding the company since 2013 and that they pocketed P15 billion in company funds in 2019 alone.

The resigned antifraud officer, lawyer Thorrsson Montes Keith, testified on the overpricing of a P2.1-billion information technology project and pointed to the entire PhilHealth executive committee as the “mafia” behind the irregularities.

Keith also accused Morales of coddling the alleged fraudsters and called him their “new leader.” Morales has denied the allegation and the top lawyer for PhilHealth has said the executive committee would bring libel charges against Keith.

Charges against 36

A separate investigation by the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission has found 36 PhilHealth officials involved in the alleged irregularities.

Commission chief Greco Belgica said last week that a report would be submitted to the President and that charges would be filed against the 36 officials in the Office of the Ombudsman.

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Mr. Duterte has refused to fire Morales despite increasingly strident calls for the PhilHealth chief’s removal from office or resignation.

After dismissing the allegations of irregularities as part of an “annual bashing” of PhilHealth, Morales acknowledged last week that corruption was pervasive in the company. He said about P10.2 billion in agency funds might have been lost to fraud last year and that the amount could “balloon” to P18 billion next year if the leaks remained unplugged.

The Senate inquiry had planned to grill Morales at the resumption of hearings on Tuesday, but he had begged off from physically attending and sent the investigators a medical certificate that a source said on Saturday showed Morales needed to undergo examination for a certain type of cancer. He, however, said that he would attend virtually.

On Monday, Morales announced that he was on medical leave and that he was looking to take legal action after the disclosure of his medical record.

“I really feel humiliated by my medical condition being brought out in public,” he said in a television interview. “I feel that my privacy was violated when they published my medical certificate. That was not part of what I understood we provided the information for.”

Morales, however, acknowledged that the timing of his leave didn’t look good, as PhilHealth Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Arnel de Jesus was also on leave on health concerns.

But De Jesus has given assurance that he will make himself available to the Senate investigators when his health permits.

‘Systemic solution’

Morales said the legislative investigation wouldn’t stop the alleged corruption in PhilHealth. For that, he said a “systemic solution” was needed.

He said that when he took over at PhilHealth last year, he would have wanted to tap the services of a global management consulting firm “to revamp the organization.”

“We were in early discussions with such a consulting firm. This would have really helped PhilHealth. But we didn’t get any support from the board, from the higher-ups,” he said.

On Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said he had discovered more “money-making schemes” in PhilHealth — including rebates, fictitious patients and overpricing — and that these would be tackled at Tuesday’s hearing.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III said on Monday that more bombshells were expected and that one of the new witnesses had already submitted a statement to the Senate about his knowledge of other rackets perpetrated by PhilHealth officials.

Sotto also rebuffed Morales and other PhilHealth officials for threatening to bring libel charges against Keith and PhilHealth board member Alejandro Cabading for disclosing alleged corruption in the company.

“Definitely these are threats against the witnesses. But it won’t fly,” Sotto said, adding that he would recommend that the witnesses be taken into the Witness Protection Program of the justice department.

Sotto also said PhilHealth could expect its proposed budget for 2021 to go through the wringer, and the senators would like to come to its aid only if they saw concrete action being taken to rid the company of corruption.

Reports from Dona Z. Pazzibugan, Jovic Yee, Marlon Ramos and Leila B. Salaverria

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TAGS: DoJ, Menardo Guevarra, PhilHealth anomalies, PhilHealth corruption
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