Mysterious indeed are the ways persona non grata of the Duterte administration suddenly end up the villains of a story that unfolded through the machinations of administration allies.
The story seems simple enough in the telling. The resignation of PhilHealth anti-fraud legal officer Thorrsson Montes Keith was accompanied by revelations about the loss of as much as P15 billion (chew on that amount for a while) from fraud and thievery. All this carried out with the knowledge, if not participation, of top officials of the health insurance body, he said. Then, board member Alejandro Cabading chimed in with another accusation: that IT equipment to be purchased by PhilHealth had been overpriced by as much as P734 million (a much smaller amount but still too rich for easy digestion) with the majority of the board choosing to look the other way.
The charges have put PhilHealth president and CEO Ricardo Morales, a Duterte appointee, in the hot seat and on the defensive. He’s gone from warning that the health insurer has only enough money to last it through the next year, to begging out of an ongoing Senate hearing on the grounds of ill health. He was joined by executive vice president Arnel de Jesus who chose to duck out of testifying because of a “health emergency.”
But while Morales and De Jesus duck and parry the flurry of charges that have emerged which, by the way, are just the latest in a series of corruption allegations through the years, forces are using the powers of social media to rope in another personality into the PhilHealth mess. This is Sen. Risa Hontiveros, who served time on the PhilHealth board from November 2014 to October 2015, a full five years ago.
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After she resigned from PhilHealth to concentrate on her campaign for the Senate, Hontiveros was cleared by the Commission on Audit after she was accused of siphoning funds for use during her campaign. Neither did the Ombudsman find anything to charge her with.
The staggering P15-billion loss that is now the subject of Senate and House probes supposedly took place in 2019, long after the senator had left PhilHealth. So why is she being raked over the coals for her fictitious role in the current PhilHealth controversy?
For the senator, as she told a reporter, the allegations are “mere diversionary tactics” designed to draw attention away from the Duterte appointees whose fingers, as it were, were caught filching from the cookie jar of the health insurer.
“I have been out of PhilHealth for five years,” she told a reporter, and according to the whistle-blower the irregularities took place in 2019. And yet, led by what some critics have called the “princess of trolls,” the attacks have been mounting in frequency and intensity. “Maybe it’s because I am a strong critic of the President, and they have nothing to throw at me, so even if I have been gone from PhilHealth and cleared by COA and PhilHealth itself, fake news peddlers like Mocha Uson persist in propagating fake news on social media.”
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The current controversy is not the first to roil the waters of PhilHealth. In 2015, it found that six facilities made PhilHealth members undergo unnecessary cataract surgery even without their informed consent. Celestina Ma. Jude de la Serna was then elected as interim president, but was later found to have spent more than half a million pesos on hotel stays and travels between Bohol, her home province, and her office in Pasig City.
President Duterte then appointed Roy Ferrer to replace De la Serna. But Ferrer was forced to resign in June last year after an investigative report by this paper found that PhilHealth approved and released payments for dialysis treatments of so-called “ghost patients,” as well as patients who had yet to complete treatment.
It will be recalled that lawyering for two officials of the center was Harry Roque, then in civilian life after losing a congressional bid. The owner of the dialysis center as well as the two whistle-blowers were later indicted for 17 counts of estafa and arrested.
Morales, who replaced Ferrer, received orders to “clean up” the agency. Now we have the gargantuan P15 billion allegedly stolen from PhilHealth. But not just from PhilHealth. Likewise victimized are millions of members who count on the agency for support to pay for their health needs especially in these days of the COVID-19 pandemic and the hunger and anger stalking the land.
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