Ombudsman suspends 2 more PhilHealth execs

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    TWO more officials of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) have been placed under preventive suspension by the Office of the Ombudsman, this time in connection with alleged irregularities in the procurement of information technology equipment earlier this year.

    Ordered suspended for six months without pay were Jovita Aragona, senior vice president and chief information officer, and Calixto Gabuya, acting senior manager for the IT Department.

    Ombudsman Samuel Martires said the suspension order is “immediately executory” even if the respondent officials file any motion, appeal, or petition for relief, unless otherwise ordered by the Ombudsman or by a court of competent jurisdiction.

    Martires signed the suspension order on November 5, addressed to PhilHealth president and chief executive officer Dante Gierran who was directed to implement it and to notify the Ombudsman within five days of actions taken.

    The directives stemmed from administrative complaints for grave misconduct, gross neglect of duty, and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service filed by the Ombudsman’s Field Investigation Office Special Task Force-PhilHealth.

    Specifically, the allegations involve the procurement budget of about P734 million that was supposedly left out of the agency’s Information System Strategic Plan (ISSP).

    The Ombudsman noted that the ISSP goes through and is subject to the approval of the Department of Information, Communication and Technology (DICT) hence, by leaving out the amount, the procurement did not undergo the required review assessment.

    The P734 million constitutes almost half or 46.84 percent of the PhilHealth’s proposed budget for ICT for 2020.

    Likewise noted by the Ombudsman’s task force were “overpricing” of IT equipment amounting to P98.5 million; splitting of contracts, P132.2 million; and anomalous proposed budget entries including a software worth P21 million but listed only at P168,000 in the approved ISSP, and application licenses worth P40 million but listed only at P25 million.

    It also cited the Senate inquiry on PhilHealth’s IT equipment, which cost higher than current market value and the Commission on Audit’s report that 24 newly-acquired network switches were not used and found to be still kept in their boxes despite the tolling of the warranty period and the absence of product tests for possible defects or malfunction.

    Worse, testimony at the Senate revealed a second batch of 15 more network switches was also being purchased even if the first delivery has not been removed from the boxes.

    “Respondents, by virtue of their positions, facilitated these anomalies. Further, they affixed their signatures on official documents causing the falsification of these documents and procurement of IT equipment on gross violation of Republic Act No. 9184, and the COA rules and regulations, DICT guidelines… to the great detriment of PhilHealth,” the Ombudsman said.

    Last month, the Ombudsman also suspended eight PhilHealth officials, in a separate complaint concerning questionable disbursement of P2.709 billion funds from the interim reimbursement mechanism (IRM) to various hospitals and health care institutions in Metro Manila.

    They were chief operating officer Arnel F. de Jesus, executive vice president Rene Limsiaco, senior vice president Israel Francis Pargas, PhilHealth-NCR vice president Gregorio Rulloda, Benefits Administrative section head Imelda Trinidad de Vera-Pe, NCR-branch manager Lolita Tuliao, fiscal examiner Gemma Sibucao, and fiscal controller Lailani Padua.

    The suspension order was based on a complaint filed by the National Bureau of Investigation-NCR on October 2, citing irregularities in the issuance of cash advances to 139 healthcare institutions (HCIs) in Metro Manila.

    It said the fund releases were in the form of cash advances, which is contrary to procedural guidelines of the Commission on Audit, and were made even prior to the effectivity of PhilHealth Circular No. 2020-007 dated June 11, 2020.

    Based on the NBI complaint, the PhilHealth officials acted with negligence by extending favors to the 139 HCIs that were included in the release of IRM funds, without first checking their track records in rendering healthcare services.

    Among the questioned recipients were found to be dialysis centers, maternity clinics, and infirmaries that did not admit or offer treatment to COVID-19 patients.