Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon on Tuesday underscored the need to challenge the “excuse” raised by Philhealth pesident and CEO Ricardo Morales that they released P703 million and P9.299 billion for the COVID-19 health emergency as they were “in state of panic and anxiety” over the coronavirus.
Pressed by Senator Panfilo Lacson on the release of these smounts despite the absence of implementing guidelines or standard operating procedures (SOP), Morales responded that in January, they were in state of anxiety because they knew that the coronavirus was coming..
“We knew how it (coronavirus) hit other countries. So we were in state of panic. We wanted preemptive measures to be able to prepare our hospitals to respond to this pandemic which we didn’t know at that time, how soon, how hard and how long it would hit us,” Morales said during the second Senate of the Whole Committee hearing on allegations of widespread corruption plaguing PhilHealth.
Morales said that in the computation of the fund releases, the PhilHealth board must rely on the managers for the figures.
READ: President Duterte: No mercy for corrupt PhilHealth officials, personnel
He also noted that they used the 90-day historical claims of the hospitals as the basis for Interim Releases Mechanism (IRM) allocations.
“So this is not arbitrary. What we wanted to achieve is to prepare all the regions, provinces and the cities with COVID watches that would prepare them to respond to the pandemic. In the administration of this effort, there was some expediency to be adopted. We didn’t know the intensity of the impact of this pandemic,” Morales said.
Due to these factors, Morales said they hastily released funds. But the PhilHealth president guaranteed they made sure all releases were covered by a contract and all the funds were accounted for.
READ: Recto: Constant audit, appointment of resident Ombudsman to prevent corruption at PhilHealth
“That was the situation earlier this year when all this was happening. The intention of PhilHealth was to be ahead of COVID-19,” said Morales, who joined the hearing online.
At this juncture, Senate President Vicente Sotto III quipped, “You were alarmed ahead of of the Department of Health (DOH).”
Drilon, who rejected Morales’ “justification” for the fund releases, echoed the remarks of Sotto.
Obviously, he said this is an excuse because “your DOH Secretary (Francisco Duque III), who is chairman of PhilHealth, did not do anything until mid-March.”
The Senate leader recalled that Duque even told the public not to panic since he still didn’t see an urgency to act.
Lacson said they passed the Bayanihan Act, on March 24 and yet, PhilHealth was ahead of them in giving authority to re-align budget.
“So early January, they foresee to address the pandemic; the first case in the Philippines, I remember was the Wuhan couple. I think that was February. They were ahead of the first COVID case, they (Philhealth) anticipated it,” Lacson said.
Lacson quizzed PhilHealth officials for releasing billions of pesos when the board resolution for IRM was released March 31 or 11 days after the memorandum circular was issued amid the pandemic. He said the board resolution should have preceded the memorandum circular.
He presented a document to prove that even prior to the adoption of the board resolution, over P703 million IRM fund releases had already been advanced to 24 hospitals for the COVID-19 health emergency.
The senator then questioned PhilHealth Board members Susan Mercado and Alejandro Cabading if the PhilHealth board discussed COVID-19 as early as January.
Mercado told the Senate panel she was "just informed and asked to endorse" the resolution on the P27 billion. Cabading also said COVID-19 was not tackled as early as January.
Before the release of the SOP for IRM, Lacson said releases were made to 279 hospitals on April 22, with the amount reaching P9.29 billion.
READ: 36 tied to PhilHealth mess
A union of PhilHealth workers said Tuesday President Rodrigo Duterte should start looking for a replacement for Morales, who has taken a medical leave in the middle of a corruption investigation.
Morales might not be fit enough to run the agency even after he undergoes treatment for lymphoma, said PhilHealth Workers for Hope, Integrity, Transparency, and Empowerment (WHITE) vice president Bryan Jabay.
“Admittedly, he said it will be difficult so this is a big stress to him especially now that there is a controversy.),” Jabay told ANC.
His group also urged Health Secretary Francisco Duque III to speak up about the allegations of corruption in PhilHealth, where he sits as chairman.
Two whistleblowers in a Senate hearing last week accused PhilHealth officials of stealing some P15 billion in public funds.
Morales also faced allegations of approving millions of pesos worth of overpriced equipment and software, and fund releases to supposedly favored hospitals.
Morales has denied that a mafia is embedded in his agency and responsible for anomalies.
Duterte on Monday said he would hold erring officials responsible. He has also created an inter-agency task force to investigate anomalies in PhilHealth.
Also on Tuesday, Quezon City Rep. Alfred Vargas, vice chairman of the House committee on appropriations, called for a lifestyle check on past and present PhilHealth officials.
Citing the Commission on Audit’s findings, Vargas said the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission said last week that PhilHealth has lost P153 billion due to fraud and overpayment from 2013.
A thorough investigation of Philhealth officials’ lifestyles, Vargas said, will help authorities identify those who benefited from alleged anomalous schemes that have reportedly been going on for years at the state health insurer.
“Any discrepancy is a red flag that should merit further investigation,” he said.
President Rodrigo Duterte warned erring Philhealth officials Monday that he would go after them. He has ordered the creation of a multi-agency task force to look into the “massive corruption” in PhilHealth.
READ: PhilHealth's Morales, De Jesus to physically skip Senate probe due to health conditions
“For us to determine to know who made a lot of money from Philhealth, the BIR and SEC should work together to look into the registered businesses, if any, of Philhealth officials.
The LRA and LTO must be tapped to check the vehicles and properties they have,” Vargas said.
Vargas said he is counting on the task force to unmask corrupt PhilHealth officials so charges can be filed against them.
Testifying during the Senate hearing Tuesday, corporate legal counsel Roberto Labe Hjr. Said the Southern Philippines Medical Center in Davao City got P326 million, the biggest amount of compensation under the health insurer’s Interim Reimbursement Mechanism (IRM) for COVID-19 patients.
Other hospitals that received the highest amounts from PhilHealth were:
University of the Philippines – Philippine General Hospital in Manila, P263.3 million; Davao Regional Medical Center in Tagum City, P209 million; Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center in Cebu City, P204 million; Jose B. Lingad Memorial Regional Hospital in San Fernando City with P201 million; National Kidney and Transplant Institute in Quezon City, P179 million; Baguio General Hospital and Medical Center, P165 million; Northern Mindanao Medical Center, P150.2 million; Quirino Memorial Medical Center, P150 million and Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center in Tacloban City with P146.2 million.
Labe said all releases of funds have been provided with receipts, and insisted that IRM was not pocketed by anyone as alleged.
In the same hearing, Senator Francis Tolentino flagged what he said was a bloated database of members at PhilHealth. He said a three-year-old member was tagged as a senior citizen in its records
while there were thousands of centenarians listed as members.
He said a list showed members below 60 years old were tagged as active senior citizen members. He said there was also a senior citizen who is 18 years old.
He also cited figures which showed there are 40,000 centenarians in one region, while another region has 10,000 centenarians listed as PhilHealth members.
Meanwhile, Senator Panfilo Lacson said the Senate granted legislative immunity to resigned PhilHealth anti-fraud legal officer Thorrson Montes Keith, PhilHealth board member Alejandro Cabading and former PhilHealth executive assistant Estrobal Laborte.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III, chair of the committee, approved Lacson’s motion when no senator objected.
Cabading supported Keith’s statements on corruption at the agency.
Laborte, a former aide of Morales said he resigned from PhilHealth since his conscience can no longer stand the corruption allegedly rampant in the agency.
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