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Which PhilHealth faction will attack Risa?

/ 04:04 AM August 11, 2020

It was unusual, to say the least. In June, a couple of months after rejoining the Cabinet and reassuming his pre-2019-election position of presidential spokesperson, Secretary Harry Roque directly criticized the management of government-owned Philippine Health Insurance Corp.

Roque represents both the office and the person of the President, but his criticism was based on his former employment, during his year-long leave from government service, as private lawyer to two whistleblowers who revealed the workings of PhilHealth’s WellMed dialysis scam. The ghost payment scam, first exposed in the pages of this newspaper, led President Duterte to demand the resignation of the entire PhilHealth board and to appoint ex-general Ricardo Morales as agency CEO.

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On June 17, Roque posted an extraordinary series of eight tweets criticizing Morales. He said Morales had enough time to clean the agency, he described Morales as playing deaf and dumb about corrupt practices in the agency, he called Morales’ claim that PhilHealth was running out of money itself proof of corruption, he compared the corrupt in PhilHealth to thriving crocodiles (“ang mga buwaya, buhay na buhay pa rin diyan sa PhilHealth”) and greedy pigs devouring the nation’s money (“Dami kasing baboy na nilalamon ang kaban ng bayan diyan sa loob ng PhilHealth”).

Corruption should be fought, and every official, as every citizen, has the responsibility to call it out when they see it. But Roque is no longer a private lawyer; he was, he is, the President’s official spokesperson. Government agencies exist that empower government officials to hold other officials to account: the Department of Justice, the Ombudsman, the Commission on Human Rights, the Commission on Audit, to name only those that readily come to mind. Is it the task of the presidential spokesperson to hold one of the President’s own appointees to account?

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One of Morales’ first defenses raised that very question. “But he’s not the President, he’s the spokesman, so these are two different things.” In other words, he did not perceive Roque to be acting on behalf of President Duterte. He said this in June, and it may have served as some sort of counterpunch then.

In itself, it is also unusual: Strictly speaking, Morales was referring to Roque’s suggestion that someone else be named to head his agency. But his other responses at that time followed the same pattern: He saw Roque as speaking for his own self, not on the President’s behalf. But when the issue is the failure to act on the President’s express instructions to clean up PhilHealth, what kind of defense is it to say “he’s not the President, he’s the spokesman”? Did Morales suggest that he had the President’s support in this fight?

He surely cannot say that now, after the news spread over the controversial board meeting with the “shouting match,” and especially after anti-fraud legal officer Thorrsson Montes Keith blew the whistle on what he called the “crime of the year,” a series of fraudulent and corrupt acts in PhilHealth that allegedly cost the government P15 billion.

What will likely happen now is that everyone involved in PhilHealth will seek to contain the damage from these scandals, but already some leads will have to be followed by the ongoing Senate inquiry:

Sen. Panfilo Lacson has linked Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, chair of PhilHealth, to possible anomalies involving the agency, “including instances of conflict of interest involving the family of … Duque … with the family-owned Doctors Pharmaceuticals Inc. having contracts with the Department of Health, and the PhilHealth regional office renting a Duque-owned building.”

The testimony of Keith and that of another potentially crucial witness, board member Alejandro Cabading, will have to be heard and investigated. Cabading alleges that IT equipment endorsed for purchase may have been overpriced by as much as P750 million. “There were numbers in the IT budget in financial reports that do not add up. I brought it up with the board but the most frustrating part is the management seems to be tolerating such acts.”

As with many other scandals in this administration, factional infighting can be a cause (or an effect). What would embolden an entire board to commit flagrant crimes, if not the support of powerful interests?

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One way to gauge which faction may be behind the acts of fraud and corruption is to trace who is spreading the false information about Sen. Risa Hontiveros. The senator, who was a member of the PhilHealth board from 2014 to 2015, has been cleared by both the COA and PhilHealth itself. The scandals consuming the agency today took place in the Duterte years, with Keith claiming that the P15-billion cluster-scam all occurred only in the last year. But Hontiveros may be used as a distraction; those who do so have something to hide.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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TAGS: Harry Roque, john Nery, Newsstand, PhilHealth anomalies, PhilHealth corruption, Risa Hontiveros
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