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More PhilHealth officials may be charged – DOJ

/ 04:50 AM September 16, 2020
Menardo Guevarra at the Department of Justice

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

MANILA, Philippines — Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Tuesday said the investigation of alleged massive corruption in Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) would continue and “more people may be charged.”

Malacañang also said the recommendation of a task force led by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to bring criminal charges against top PhilHealth officials was “only the beginning,” holding out hope that Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, the PhilHealth chair, had not ridden out liability for the mess at the state-run health insurer.

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On Monday night, President Rodrigo Duterte approved the task force recommendation to file criminal charges against former PhilHealth president and CEO Ricardo Morales; senior vice president (SVP) for information technology Jovita Aragona; acting senior manager for information technology Calixto Gabuya Jr.; SVP for fund management Renato Limsiaco Jr.; SVP for health finance policy Israel Francis Pargas; executive vice president, chief operating officer and acting president Arnel de Jesus; and division chief Bobby Crisostomo.

The charges were graft, malversation and illegal use of public funds, and gross misconduct and gross neglect, among other offenses that allegedly had cost PhilHealth P154 billion in losses to corruption since 2003.

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Several senators expressed disappointment on Tuesday at the task force’s decision not to recommend charges against Duque, whom an investigation by the Senate committee of the whole found liable for negligence that had led to the losses that brought PhilHealth to the brink of bankruptcy.

“I’m dumbfounded,” said Senate President Vicente Sotto III, who led the

Senate inquiry into alleged rackets in PhilHealth.

“Article 217 of [the Revised Penal Code] is very clear. Perhaps the Ombudsman would have a better perspective of the [PhilHealth irregularities],” Sotto said.

He was referring to the law penalizing malversation of public funds, which states that government officials who allowed the misappropriation of taxpayer money with consent or “through abandonment or negligence” should be held criminally liable.

Sotto earlier said Duque’s claim that he had no knowledge of the alleged misuse of PhilHealth funds was a virtual admission of the health chief’s negligence as head of the health insurance company.

“It’s a good thing that the Ombudsman does not rely [on task forces for its investigations]. They have motu proprio powers,” Sotto said.

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‘Initial findings’

But Guevarra said the task force’s report that was submitted to the President, who had ordered the investigation, covered only the group’s “initial findings.”

“Further investigations will be conducted and more people may be charged,” Guevarra said when asked why Duque and PhilHealth SVP for the legal sector Rodolfo del Rosario were not found liable.

He said the composite teams created by the task force would continue the investigation and file criminal or administrative complaints “when the case buildup or evidence gathering is completed.”

Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete said the liability of health-care institutions that benefited from irregular reimbursements “is one of the aspects they (composite teams) are looking at.”

The complaints against Morales and the six other PhilHealth officials will be filed in the Office of the Ombudsman, the concerned prosecutors, and PhilHealth for administrative cases, he said.

Guevarra said representatives from the Ombudsman, Commission on Audit and the Civil Service Commission, who are pursuing their own investigations, attended the task force’s seven hearings “like guest participants.”

“They had no hand in the evaluation and recommendations made by the DOJ,” he said.

Perete explained that DOJ members on the task force did the “fact-finding,” and that it would be up to the prosecutors to “independently and objectively assess and evaluate the evidence that will be presented.”

Admonition for Duque, board

The task force recommended that the President “strongly admonish and remind” the chair and members of the board “of the grave consequences of their action or inaction.”

In Malacañang, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, asked if Duque was not yet absolved, said: “This is only the beginning. The report states that the National Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Health will continue their investigation, and the Ombudsman will continue its own investigation.”

In a statement issued on Tuesday, PhilHealth said it would continue to cooperate with the investigators as it expressed hope that the filing of charges against its top officials would allow those “innocent” of the crime they had been accused of a chance to clear their names.

Sen. Christopher “Bong” Go, chair of the Senate health committee, said the task force’s investigation should lead to corrupt PhilHealth officials being thrown in jail as the President had directed.

In its report to the President, the task force said the board of directors and the executive committee “who are supposed to set the policies and operational guidelines for the management of PhilHealth have not shown the due diligence required of them in the discharge of their duties.”

“While it found the board negligent in some of its decisions, the task force nevertheless noted that such negligence was mitigated by the active concealment of vital documents and the apparent misrepresentation by those who have sought the board’s approval,” it said.

The probe focused on three issues: the interim reimbursement mechanism (IRM), the purchase of information and communications technology (ICT) equipment, and the failure to prosecute and penalize erring PhilHealth personnel, health-care institutions and medical professionals.

The task force said it found “negligence” on the part of the executive committee and the board in implementing the IRM, a special financial assistance program to health-care providers.

Insufficient guidelines

The IRM fund releases were rushed without sufficient guidelines and monitoring, making the disbursements “susceptible to abuse,” it said.

It said the executive committee members deliberately concealed “important information or audit documents” to get board approval of their requested budget to procure certain ICT equipment.

One request that involved a budget of over P730 million did not meet the legal requirement to be included in PhilHealth’s information system strategic plan.

The task force also flagged PhilHealth’s policy to grant “wholesale amnesty” in favor of health-care institutions with claims that are no longer enforceable against the company.

It found cases where payments for health-care institutions were diverted to a private account or to an undisclosed account, but PhilHealth did not file a criminal complaint against the perpetrators.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who initiated the Senate inquiry along with Sotto, declined to comment on the task force’s recommendations, saying he had yet to read the full report.

But he said the documents and other evidence that the Senate committee of the whole had submitted to Guevarra had been “put to good use at the very least.”

“This is good reason enough to feel gratified that we did our share in taking the first big step in making those criminally and administratively liable for the misuse and abuse of public money accountable,” Lacson said.

Sen. Francis Pangilinan said Duque’s exoneration was “no longer surprising” as the Duterte administration had a long record of protecting its allies implicated in corruption.

“The list of corrupt and incompetent untouchables in this administration is getting longer,” Pangilinan said.

With reports from Marlon Ramos, Julie M. Aurelio and Jovic Yee

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TAGS: DoJ, Francisco Duque III, Menardo Guevarra, PhilHealth anomalies, PhilHealth mafia, Ricardo Morales, Rodrigo Duterte
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