‘Hilutin ang kaso’
The Senate hearing on Tuesday probing the raft of alleged anomalies at the state-owned Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) apparently uncovered a bottomless cesspool of corrupt practices at the agency. Any leader worth his salt would have hung his head in abject shame, apologize, and vow to get to the bottom of things at such revelations of gross hanky-panky under his watch. But, defying logic, PhilHealth’s president-CEO, retired Brig. Gen. Ricardo Morales, only had dismissive disregard for the grave charges.
PhilHealth’s anti-fraud legal officer Thorrsson Montes Keith, who has since resigned from the board, told the hearing that he believes as much as P15 billion may have been stolen by the agency’s senior executives through various fraudulent schemes.
PhilHealth board member Alejandro Cabading, an accountant, testified that he brought up the suspicious schemes to the attention of management and the board, but recalled being frustrated by “their inaction against these executive officers who are obviously compromised.” Several of these senior officers also “intimidated” those investigating the corruption mess, he added.
Note that Morales was appointed by President Duterte in July last year precisely to clean up the agency, which was then mired in controversy over anomalous payments of claims for nonexistent medical procedures, including ghost dialysis treatments.
This time, the irregularities appear even more gargantuan. But what the Senate hearing also unearthed was that Morales had ignored, or was shockingly cavalier about, such malfeasance. Asked, for example, why he did not flag the agency’s IT project that was overpriced by hundreds of millions, he said he was “not an IT expert” and “assumed” that the prices he signed off on were the “correct amount.”
The overprice involved startling discrepancies between the amount approved by the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) for the planned acquisition of a P2.1-billion IT system, and the amount on the budget proposal submitted by PhilHealth senior officers for the board’s approval. The Commission on Audit earlier flagged the IT project as rife with anomalies, such as the P734 million tacked on to the original list of DICT-approved IT components. An Adobe Master Collection software, whose cost was approved by the DICT at P168,000, also suddenly ballooned to P21 million in the proposal. And three unspecified projects billed at P98 million were nowhere in the list approved by the DICT.
The oddities extended to personnel decisions. Instead of dismissing the five officials linked to the ghost dialysis scam, Morales was found to have approved their promotion. His defense, when Senate President Vicente Sotto III presented documents showing that the officials had been charged with graft, usurpation of judicial functions, and grave misconduct: “Hindi po ako nasabihan na may na-file nang mga kaso.” Pressed as to who had advised him about the lack of cases against the officials, Morales said he would have to check.
His plans in the face of chronic corruption at PhilHealth sounded just as vague: an upgrade of the agency’s IT system which, he insisted, would help clean up its database and identify who among its 109 million members were no longer alive. Absurdly, Morales revealed that according to the database, there are 5,000 PhilHealth members aged 130 whom they cannot remove because of a lack of documents proving they had passed on. How hard is it to cross-check with the Philippine Statistics Authority on these individuals’ details?
The mess at PhilHealth appears to be of such magnitude that it might end up spawning its own lasting lexicon of corruption, to join the likes of “bubukol ’yan” and “moderate their greed” from the ZTE scandal of the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo presidency. Keith recalled that Morales had at one point ordered him to go to Commissioner Greco Belgica of the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission and ask him to “massage” or fix the overpriced COVID-19 testing kits issue raised by Sen. Franklin Drilon. The order sounds even more slimy in the vernacular: “Hilutin ang kaso.” From P8,150 for a testing package, PhilHealth eventually dialed down the price to around P3,000.
Morales has rejected accusations that, by principle of command responsibility, he is responsible for the direr straits PhilHealth is in, and which now threaten the very viability of the agency vital to the country’s universal health care program. “Corruption was there in the PhilHealth organization before I came in,” he rationalized. Earlier, he also said: “There is no health system in the world that is entirely fraud-free.”
The word from Malacañang is that President Duterte continues to have confidence in the retired general, a townmate from Davao, and that he will not fire the PhilHealth chief “unless there is evidence” of corruption against him.
Well, if not for corruption, how about for plain runaway incompetence?
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