Ombudsman suspends 13 PhilHealth execs

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    THE Office of the Ombudsman has issued two orders placing 13 senior officials of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) under six-month preventive suspension in connection with administrative charges filed against them.

    President and CEO Ricardo Morales and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, as ex-officio chairman of the PhilHealth board, were directed to implement the suspension and to submit a report to the Ombudsman on the status of compliance.

    It was unclear what cases prompted the suspension order. But it came as the state insurer is being investigated by the Senate and the House because of allegations of corruption. A task force headed by Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra is also looking into the anomalies at the agency which has reportedly lost billions to fraud and corruption.

    PhilHealth said it has yet to receive a copy of the Ombudsman orders and it will issue a “full statement” as soon as it receives the order.

    Covered by the first suspension order were PhilHealth senior vice presidents Dennis Mas and Israel Pargas; Shirley Domingo, VP for corporate affairs; Rodolfo del Rosario, legal sector head; Roy Ferrer, former PhilHealth acting president and now health assistant secretary; Celestina dela Serna, former PhilHealth interim president; Ruben John Basa, chief operating officer; Raul Dominic Badilla, chief of staff; vice president Angelito Grande; Lawrence Mijares; and acting senior manager Leila Tuazon.

    Ombudsman Samuel Martires signed the order dated August 18, recommending that the respondents will not receive any pay for the entire six-month period.

    Suspended by the Ombudsman in a separate order were Ferrer, Basa, Grande, vice president Clementine Bautista, and former field operations division chief Eugenio Donatos II.

    “The evidence on record shows that the guilt of respondents is strong and the charges against them involve grave misconduct, oppression and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service which may warrant removal from the service,” the Ombudsman said.

    Both orders invoked the Section 24 of RA 6770 or the Ombudsman Act giving the anti-corruption agency authority to order a public official or employee placed under preventive suspension where the charges filed involves “dishonesty, oppression, grave misconduct or neglect in performance on duty.”

    The same rule recommends preventive suspension for charges that would warrant removal from office or where the respondent’s continued stay in office may prejudice the investigation against him.

    Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the Senate committee of the whole has decided to terminate investigations and is now preparing a committee report which will contain recommendations to stop irregularities at PhilHealth.

    After three hearings, Sotto said the PhilHealth officials linked to the anomalies should just face Guevarra’s Task Force PhilHealth.

    “I think General Morales should just appear before the DOJ together with his execom (executive committee) and other officials and later with the Ombudsman… We are done with the carousel of denials and lies!” Sotto said. “Will forward all findings to the DOJ. Enough is enough.”

    The Senate looked into three main anomalies exposed by two resigned officials. These are irregular distribution of cash advance payments, manipulation of PhilHealth’s financial statements, and the overpriced purchase of IT equipment.

    Thorsson Montes Keith, resigned anti-fraud legal officer, on Tuesday tagged Health Secretary Francisco Duque III as the “godfather” of a “mafia” operating in PhilHealth. Duque denied the allegation.

    Sotto said that it is usually the accuser who must prove the allegation by presenting solid evidence but because of the “preponderance of circumstances and pronouncements,” the Department of Health “must present evidence against the accusations.”

    Sen. Panfilo Lacson said evidence presented by witnesses during the hearings are enough to indict those involved in corruption.

    Lacson said the Filipino people deserve a corruption-free PhilHealth and a competent health secretary.

    He said Duque has been linked to past anomalies in PhilHealth including the “Plan 5 million” when Duque was the PhilHealth president in 2004 during the time of former President Arroyo.

    He said this year, Duque, as ex-officio chairman of PhilHealth, tried to collect premiums from overseas Filipino workers despite their classification as a special sector but the plan did not push through as President Duterte ordered it stopped.

    “The President’s trust and confidence notwithstanding, Filipinos don’t deserve a state health insurance that is so corrupt, made possible by officials entrusted with mandatory monthly deductions from hard-earned salaries of ordinary employees,” Lacson said.

    “…Filipinos deserve a good, competent, honest, and capable DOH secretary,” he added.

    `HURT’

    PhilHealth rank-and-file employees welcomed the preventive suspension orders.

    “We are also surprised with that news of preventive suspension. I think it is just proper, right that they are preventively suspended so they cannot influence the pending case which is filed against them,” said Fe Francisco, president of PhilHealth’s Workers for Hope, Integrity, Transparency and Empowerment (PhilHealth-WHITE).

    Francisco also said that the top officials now suspended, they hope investigations will be faster and more objective.

    “We are hurt, the majority of honest and hardworking rank and file employees because of these sweeping statements. The accusations/allegations are being hurled at the entire Corporation and the people are getting demoralized,” she said.

    Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Duque III continues to enjoy the trust and confidence of President Duterte despite the latest allegation that he is the “godfather’ of the alleged mafia at PhilHealth.

    “If he (Duque) has ceased to have trust and confidence, then Secretary Duque would no longer be in office because all Cabinet members serve at the pleasure of the President,” Roque said.

    On the PhilHealth card issue (Plan 5 million) hounding Duque, Roque said the health secretary has been cleared by the Office of the Ombudsman.

    CRISIS ACT

    At the House, Marikina City Rep. Stella Quimbo filed House Bill No. 07429 or the Social Health Insurance Crisis Act which seeks to privatize the PhilHealth, saying the health insurance system is like a person suffering from “renal failure.”

    “Our primary role in times like this is to assure the public that the situation is under control and that there are sufficient funds to address the pandemic. May renal failure na ang sistema ng PhilHealth. Naghihingalo na ito dahil sa maling mga polisiya tulad ng IRM (The PhilHealth system has renal failure and it’s dying because of wrong policies like the IRM),” said the lawmaker, who is a member of the Liberal Party and the minority bloc.

    Under the bill, the President will have the power to privatize the entire PhilHealth or any of its segments.

    The measure will also create an Executive-Legislative “social health insurance crisis commission” to reorganize the corporation and also tap a “transition management team” from a private corporation or a management consultancy firm to implement the national insurance program pursuant to the Universal Healthcare Law. — With Raymond Africa, Gerard Naval, Jocelyn Montemayor and Wendell Vigilia