Ties that bind: Duterte, Duque bond mystifies nation
MANILA, Philippines—“Even if I am the only one left, I will stand for you.”
In a void, these words could very well be part of the dialogue of a romance film but last Saturday (Aug. 21), Filipinos listened as President Rodrigo Duterte uttered the phrase to proclaim his belief and trust in Health Secretary Francisco Duque.
Add those words to another phrase, in question form, that Duterte repeatedly used to defend Duque—“What has he done?”
Controversy after controversy, Duterte’s support for Duque was unshakeable even after the Commission on Audit (COA) found deficiencies in the spending of P67.32 billion by the Department of Health (DOH) even at a time when wise spending was not only required, but compelling, as thousands get sick and hundreds die every day of COVID-19.
Duterte did not only say he would stand by Duque, but showed he meant it. For emphasis, the Philippine ruler said he would do so even at the expense of his grip on power—“even if it brings me down.”
In the latest episode of the Duterte Backs Duque saga, the President said there was no option to ask Duque to quit but would accept if Duque did “voluntarily.” In a familiar suffix, Duterte uttered, yet again: “I will stand by him.”
What has he done? To provide answers to this classic Duterte question about how Duque could be at fault, recent records could be useful. Remember, though, that Duterte and other Duque enablers would dismiss the health chief’s possible involvement as “baseless.”
- GMA PhilHealth Cards
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, in 2019, said in a tweet that the President’s “DOH secretary and PhilHealth chairman” was the president of PhilHealth in 2004 when P500 million in OWWA resources were “illegally used to buy health cards” with former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s photo with the letters GMA (Greater Medical Access) and “GMA Para sa Masa, Para sa Lahat.”
While Lacson did not name the one he referred to as “president of PhilHealth in 2004,” Duque, who was appointed by Arroyo as health secretary from 2005 to 2010 was the head of the health insurance corporation from 2001 to 2004.
That time, Arroyo was criticized as she approved the transfer of resources for the cards’ production which were distributed before the elections.
In response to Lacson’s allegations, Duque said the case was already dismissed by the Ombudsman in 2012 and was dismissed with finality by the Supreme Court in 2013 because of lack of evidence.
- Family-owned building ‘leased’
The Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC), in 2019 recommended the dismissal of Duque following its finding that PhilHealth entered into a lease contract with the Educational and Medical Development Corporation (EMDC), an entity Duque served as one of the Board of Trustees.
Duque took a leave of absence after he was appointed health secretary in October 2017. However, the PACC said P14.2 million of the total cost of the lease covered the period where Duque was still health chief and ex-officio chair of the board of PhilHealth. The contract was for 7.5 years worth P40.8 million.
Duque, however, denied the allegations, saying that since he became the DOH head, he no longer engaged himself in the EMDC and that he was not privy to what PhilHealth was doing.
- Ghost dialysis
The Philippine Daily Inquirer published in 2019 a report that billions of pesos were lost to alleged ghost dialysis treatments and several irregularities involving WellMed Dialysis Center in Quezon City which allegedly received payments from PhilHealth for fraudulent claims on behalf of patients who are already dead.
Duterte called on PhilHealth executives to resign, but Lacson asked why Duque, the chair of the PhilHealth board, is being spared, saying that rules applying to PhilHealth chair Roy Ferrer should also apply to Duque.
In a television interview, Duque said he considered resigning but was told to stay by President Duterte.
Duque said Duterte’s instruction was for him to explain that PhilHealth lost only P232 million, not P154 billion, as 22,232 fraudulent claims from 2015 to 2018, worth P10,000 each, resulted in a fraud rate of only 0.05 percent.
- Misspent, stolen P15 billion
Thorrsson Montes Keith, PhilHealth’s former anti-fraud officer, told the Senate in 2020 that executives of PhilHealth possibly misspent and stole P15 billion through deceptive schemes in the implementation of the Interim Reimbursement Mechanism and the procurement of “overpriced” information technology equipment worth P734 million. He referred to Duque as the “godfather” of the PhilHealth mafia.
Duque said that as the leader of the DOH, there is absolutely zero tolerance for any form of fraud or corruption: “We will not put the trust nor the hard-earned money of the people to waste.”
- ‘Overpriced’ COVID-19 equipment
In 2020, the DOH said it bought one million sets of personal protective equipment (PPE) – head gear, goggles, N95 masks, gloves, apron, and gown – worth P1.8 billion, but Sen. Grace Poe raised concern, asking the DOH why it bought PPE sets worth P1,800 each when these cost only P400 to P1,000 each.
The controversy prompted the Ombudsman to initiate an investigation, but Duterte defended Duque, saying that he believed in the honesty and integrity of his health chief: “My people are clean and I still believe in them.”
He also said he gave Duque instruction to “do everything you can, I do not care if it’s expensive.”
- ‘He dropped the ball’
In 2020, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr confirmed that it was Duque who had “dropped the ball” in COVID-19 vaccine negotiations between the Philippines and Pfizer Inc.
It was reported that Locsin and Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez, the Philippine ambassador to the United States, were able to secure 10 million doses of Pfizer vaccines for the Philippines by January 2021 but it did not push through because “someone dropped the ball.”
Duque said the DOH cannot approve the Confidentiality Disclosure Agreement on behalf of the national government so the document was signed separately.
Duterte likewise said he did not see a “major lapse,” but asked Duque to clarify whether negotiations for COVID vaccine purchase were stalled by his failure to submit a document.
- ‘Missed chances’
The COA, in its report, said that it found “various deficiencies” involving P67.32 billion worth of public funds that were intended for government efforts against the COVID-19 health crisis. The COA said it led to “missed chances” in the country’s coronavirus response.
The report also stated that the DOH in 2020 spent about P45.89 billion in transactions not backed by required documents—P16.7 million in disbursements that were not stamped “paid,” nearly P1 billion in procurement for seven regions in the country and P42.35 billion in fund transfers.
The DOH was likewise called out for its low utilization of Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Funds, saying that the health department spent only over P316 billion out of P1.7 billion that was given in 2020.
In a statement, the DOH said the P67.32 billion is all accounted for and spent on medical kits and salaries for health care workers and that it acknowledges the findings concerning the funds, and is currently addressing the findings.
Duque, at Senate and House hearings last week, said all the questioned funds were “properly allocated.”
- Unpaid claims to hospitals
In a House hearing last Aug. 17, Dr. Jaime Almora, of the Philippine Hospital Association, said from January 2020 to June 30, 2021, PhilHealth has over P86 billion of unpaid claims to hospitals that was described as “arbitrary denial of payment resulting in losses to hospitals.”
As DOH head and ex-officio chairman of PhilHealth, Duque called on hospitals and the health insurance corporation to continue discussion to fix the dispute.
‘Not letting go’
As Duterte’s trust in Duque came in full display, Graduate School of Law Dean Rodel Taton said “the action of the President is more than telling of their deeply rooted relationship.”
Even before the start of the COVID-19 health crisis, the President did not only express his trust for Duque – there were times that he took the blows intended for Duque while most often, he stood in his defense.
Another reason, Taton said, is that possibly, there were “hidden secrets only the two of them have a personal knowledge of.”
University of Santo Tomas Political Science Professor Dennis Coronacion said for the President to stand with Duque, “the political bond that ties the two must be very strong.”
“Reasons I can think of is the loyalty shown by Duque to his patron and the tremendous support given by Duque to Duterte when the latter was still a presidential candidate in 2016,” he said.
“Usually, the strong bonds between our country’s politicians are created during elections, which happen to be a vulnerable moment for them,” he added.
Duque was Arroyo’s health chief from 2001 to 2010. The former president’s father, the late President Diosdado Macapagal, had Duque’s father, Francisco Jr, as health chief.
In 2016, when Duterte was still a candidate for president, his lawyer, Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, was seen at Arroyo’s birthday celebration.
In 2019, Arroyo thanked Duterte for “providing the atmosphere in which the court had the freedom to acquit me of trumped up charges.”
According to a report by Vera Files, Duque is the brother of Gonzalo, the President’s friend who was appointed commissioner of the Social Security Commission in 2016 and was later appointed administrator of the Philippine Coconut Authority.
While the reason for the “strong bond” between Duterte and Duque is not very clear, one thing is: the effect of that bond on the nation.
Judy Taguiwalo, former social welfare secretary and now spokesperson of the group CURE COVID-19, said Duterte’s inability to remove officials hounded by scandals was a betrayal of his promise to end corruption.
For Coronacion, the “DOH has been performing below expectations since the beginning of the health catastrophe and it will continue to do so for as long as Duque remains as its health secretary.
Taton said with weak COVID-19 response and the controversies involving Duque, the government is eroding the trust of Filipinos.
“It is imperative that a bolder action should be done by the President here. It is not only saving face but putting forward the interests of the people and the country above personal ones,” he said.
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