Senators urge Duterte to suspend more PhilHealth officials
MANILA, Philippines — The Senate on Wednesday urged President Rodrigo Duterte to suspend Philippine Health Insurance Corp. President Ricardo Morales and other top officials of the state insurance company embroiled in corruption charges to allow investigators to access official documents.
The senators unanimously approved Resolution No. 502 authored by Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri calling for the preventive suspension of the senior PhilHealth officials after the National Bureau of Investigation and the Commission on Audit (COA) had run into obstacles in trying to obtain official documents from the state insurer.
Zubiri said suspending the top officials would help the NBI and the COA “secure the pertinent records they need in order to perform their duties and properly investigate the alleged corruption.”
“Allowing these PhilHealth officials to remain in office may give them time to tamper with, conceal or destroy important records, and further hamper the investigations of the NBI, the COA, the Ombudsman and other investigative bodies conducting investigations on PhilHealth,” read a portion of Zubiri’s resolution.
“PhilHealth’s unwillingness to cooperate … could qualify as obstruction of justice … PhilHealth’s refusal or delay in the submission of pertinent documents and refusal to grant full access to its record system to (COA) is a blatant violation of the Government Auditing Code of the Philippines,” it added.
The resolution was passed a day after Ombudsman Samuel Martires suspended former PhilHealth President Roy B. Ferrer and 12 former and current officials of the agency for causes which had yet to be publicly disclosed.
A digital copy of a document shared with reporters by Iloilo Rep. Janette Garin, former health secretary, showed that the suspension was served in two separate orders.
Ferrer was forced to resign last year following an Inquirer exposé of fraudulent payments made by PhilHealth that cost the state insurer P154 billion in losses over several years.
Duterte later appointed Ferrer as assistant secretary at the Department of Health, but a highly placed source at the Office of the Ombudsman said the former PhilHealth chief would still be suspended.
The others who were suspended were former interim President Celestina Ma. Jude dela Serna, former Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Ruben John A. Basa, Senior Vice President for management services Dennis S. Mas, Vice President for corporate affairs and spokesperson Shirley B. Domingo, and Senior Vice President for legal Rodolfo Del Rosario Jr.
Also suspended were Senior Vice President for health finance policy Israel Pargas, acting Senior Manager for operations Leila Tuazon, Vice President for quality assurance group Clementine A. Bautista, former Group Vice President Angelito Grande, former Head Executive Assistant Raul Dominic Badilla, Eugenio G. Donatos II and Lawrence Mijares.
Zubiri lauded Martires’ action, telling the Inquirer that it was “great news” and “a small victory in our fight against corruption in the government’s health insurance agency.”
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said he was surprised why the suspension orders did not include Morales and PhilHealth Senior Vice Presidents Renato Limsiaco Jr. and Jovita Aragona.
Limsiaco and Aragona were linked by whistleblowers to the allegedly anomalous use of the P30-billion interim reimbursement mechanism (IRM) fund and the botched and allegedly overpriced P2.1-billion information technology project.
Sotto also said he terminated the Senate’s investigation after three hearings as senators had enough of the “carousel of lies” and “changing statements” from the PhilHealth officials. “Enough is enough,” he said.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan said Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, who chairs the PhilHealth board, should have also been suspended by the Ombudsman “unless the (suspension) order refers to other cases and not to the IRM controversy.”
Sen. Grace Poe expressed confidence that there were competent and efficient officials “outside of the usual pool of recycled appointees” who may replace those who would be suspended.
“It was made crystal clear to us during the hearings that the problems afflicting PhilHealth today had their beginnings during the decade when PhilHealth only knew one leader—Secretary Duque,” Poe said.
She likened the PhilHealth situation to a growing cancer that Duque did not remove. She said that “leaves us with one prescription: To save the patient, we must dismiss the doctor.”
Pangilinan and other senators also said Duque’s admission that PhilHealth cash advances to dialysis centers and maternity clinics were illegal should prompt the state insurer to demand a refund.
The money should be given to hospitals to benefit COVID-19 patients, the intended IRM beneficiaries, Pangilinan said.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said that by law, the officials who were responsible for diverting the money from IRM could be penalized with “reclusion perpetua,” or 30 years in prison.
The former national police chief, who grilled Duque during the Senate hearing on Tuesday, said Morales and Limsiaco should be charged with malversation of public funds for authorizing the release of P231 million from the IRM to health facilities that did not have a single COVID-19 case.
Sen. Sonny Angara said PhilHealth should order the immediate liquidation of IRM disbursements “to ensure public funds are protected and possibly an audit of the releases and the use of such funds.”
Sen. Joel Villanueva said the officials who facilitated the swift release of IRM funds to dialysis clinics should be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
—With a report from Patricia Denise M. Chiu
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