Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) president and CEO Ricardo Morales’ absence from Tuesday’s Senate inquiry on the alleged anomalies in the state health insurance agency won’t be a deterrent to the lawmakers’ probe.
Morales announced that upon doctors’ advice, he will go on a medical leave as he is afflicted with lymphoma, a type of cancer that attacks the infection-fighting cells of the immune system called lymphocytes.
“That’s fine. It won’t stop our inquiry and other witnesses and testimonies from coming out. It won’t also stop the filing of charges against erring officials of PhilHealth if warranted,” Senate President Vicente Sotto said on Monday.
The Senate Committee of the Whole resumes investigation Tuesday on PhilHealth, under the spotlight after former anti-fraud legal officer Thorrsson Montes Keith resigned and charged “widespread corruption” in the agency.
Sources said resigned PhilHealth head executive assistant and retired Marine colonel Etrobal Laborte, who served as Morales’ aide, will attend the hearing.
He begged off from testifying in the 5 August hearing due to alleged threats to his life.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, one of several lawmakers who filed the resolution to probe PhilHealth, said it is not the Senate’s loss if officials will not attend the hearings.
“They won’t be there to respond to new issues to be brought up by resource persons and some new incriminating documents in our possession,” Lacson said.
Sotto added they are expecting at least one new witness and two additional resource persons to appear and give their testimonies.
“Senator Lacson (said) they will reveal vital information,” Sotto said.
Morales accused the Senate of violating his privacy after his medical certificates, which stated he was diagnosed with Diffuse Large B cell lymphoma and is undergoing chemotherapy at the Cardinal Santos Medical Center in San Juan, were made public.
Morales said his lawyers will look into the matter since he submitted his medical certificates to the Senate not for publication but to justify his request to participate in the investigation via virtual means.
“I really feel humiliated by my medical condition being brought out in public. In PhilHealth, we’re very careful with our patient’s data because it involves private and personal data so I feel my privacy was violated,” Morales said, adding his application for medical leave has yet to be approved.
But Sotto reiterated that Morales, as a public official, cannot invoke privacy on his medical condition.
Morales earlier said he will not resign despite the allegations as there are still needed works to be done to resolve issues within the agency.
The 67-year-old retired army general, a townmate of President Rodrigo Duterte in Davao City, is insisting on his innocence.
“They may even be surprised when they see my house. Of course, I may be embarrassed but I have nothing to hide,” Morales said.
Senator Bong Go echoed President Duterte’s determination to put an end to deeply rooted and systemic corruption in government.
Go, also the chair of the Committee on Health, enjoined all state agencies to cooperate and support the recently created task force headed by the Department of Justice (DoJ) that will investigate corruption allegations.
“The task force will focus and target a whole-of-government approach to fight corruption. All state agencies must help out so we can clean and get rid of corruption,” Go said.
The task force will be composed of the Office of the Ombudsman, Commission on Audit (CoA), Civil Service Commission, Office of the Executive Secretary, Office of the Special Assistant to the President and other agencies like the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC).
DoJ Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the task force was given 30 days to submit its findings and recommendation to the Malacañang.
The so-called ghost claims of the WellMed Dialysis Center, bared by two former employees late last year, are among the issues to be looked into by the task force.
The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) filed multiple charges against 21 officials and employees of PhilHealth for their alleged involvement in the WellMed scam.
Among those charged were Rizza Majella Herrera, acting senior manager and head of the accreditation department and her staff Bernadette Lico and Janice Gem Perlas.
The NBI said WellMed collected about P1.8 million in false claims from PhilHealth in 2019 alone.
“The task force will orchestrate the efforts of various agencies with a single mandate to eradicate deep-seated and systemic corruption,” Go said.
Go added the task force will also conduct lifestyle checks, audits, recommend suspension, prosecute and file charges.
The Senate invited representatives from CoA, Department of Information and Communications Technology and PACC to present their claims against PhilHealth.
Among the issues thrown against PhilHealth are overpriced information technology equipment, manipulation of financial statements and the irregular implementation of advanced payments to health care institutions through the Interim Reimbursement Mechanism (IRM) policy.
IRM releases, according to PhilHealth are based on “the historical claims of hospitals and undergo a process of application, evaluation, validation and recommendation at the level of the PhilHealth Regional Offices, and approval at its Head Office.”
When asked if his name will appear in the initial investigation by PACC, Morales said he is confident he can defend his side.
“Whether my name is there or not, let them send it to me. I’ll try to explain it anyway. These are still preliminary investigations. In our justice system, I know that they will allow us to explain,” Morales said.
The initial report of PACC Commissioner Greco Belgica tagged 36 PhilHealth officials who are allegedly part of the corruption.
Belgica further said 13 out of the 36 are considered “airtight cases” while others were identified as part of “new allegations and findings.”
But contrary to Keith’s claims, Belgica said PACC found no mafia existing in the agency. Instead, there are groups even among regional areas where funds are being manipulated.
“This is an opportunity for PhilHealth because it can be elevated into a proper investigation status,” Morales added.
Go assured that despite the issues, PhilHealth will continue to fulfill its mandate and ensure the proper implementation of the Universal Health Care Law.
“PhilHealth is not just about COVID-19. There are other illnesses it is dealing with,” Go said. “Kidney problems, tuberculosis, cancer, muscular diseases, diabetes, dengue. There are other issues being dealt with.”
with GABBIE PARLADE,
and ALVIN MURCIA