"Are we really commited to a clean government?"
Allegations of widespread corruption in the state-owned Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) are a crucial test for the Duterte administration’s commitment to clean government.
President Duterte had famously said he would not tolerate even “the whiff or whisper of corruption”—not even from friends.
Now hearings at the Senate have uncovered what one public policy think tank referred to as not just a whiff of corruption, but an entire landfill.
Even PhilHealth president Ricardo Morales admitted before a Senate hearing that about P10.2 billion of the agency’s P176 billion in benefit payments could have been lost to fraudulent transactions and schemes in 2019 and that this could rise to P18 billion next year “if the right thing is not done.”
Morales, handpicked by the President to take over PhilHealth after a scandal over millions of pesos in benefit payments to ghost patients last year, said a new computer system was designed to fix this problem—but the system itself has been flagged by the Commission on Audit for irregularities, particularly in the planned procurement of equipment and software for P734 million, which was not contained in the state insurer’s original budget proposal.
State auditors said one piece of software from Adobe, which costs P168,000, was listed as P21 million each in the proposed budget submitted by PhilHealth. They also said the budget for application servers and licenses was increased from the initial budget of P25 million to P40 million.
At the same hearings, Senator Panfilo Lacson documented the questionable release of funds under PhilHealth’s Interim Reimbursement Mechanism (IRM), through which advance payments of up to three months are made to health care institutions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Senator Grace Poe demanded to know why some hospitals in Bicol and the Visayas were granted hundreds of millions of pesos under the IRM—when some of them were not even accredited and had very few or no COVID-19 cases.
In response to these allegations, the President has created a task force, headed by the Justice Department, to look into the reports of corruption. The task force’s members will include officials from the Office of the Ombudsman, the Commission on Audit, the Civil Service Commission, the Office of the Executive Secretary and the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission. They have been given 30 days to submit their findings and recommendations.
Some quarters have suggested that the task force, and not the Senate, is best situated to conduct the investigation of PhilHealth, given the propensity of some senators toward grandstanding. But such a view overlooks the key role that legislators play—to provide oversight over the executive department’s actions. While we welcome the creation of the task force and eagerly await its findings, we believe the Senate must continue shedding light on the dark corners of government where corruption thrives.