Endemic corruption at a time of pandemic

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    ‘But it was like changing of the guards at the Rizal Monument in Luneta… In the case of PhilHealth, it was the monument of official corruption.’

    THE Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) is a government office mandated to render financial assistance to its members and the general public in their hospitalization and medical expenses. It also collects insurance premiums from workers and its members to be able to sustain its social responsibility. As such, and especially because it handles billions of pesos worth of receivables and disbursements, the agency has played host to various kinds of schemes and schemers, some subtle and some rough, but all working to line their pockets with the people’s money.

    When a recent wave of corrupt practices was exposed in March 2019, Atty. Harry Roque was outside the Palace, cooling his heels at UP. He told a breakfast forum at Kamuning Bakery that he wanted to personally see President Duterte about the pervasive corruption at PhilHealth, with the whistleblower-employees of healthcare companies being demonized and facing charges instead of accolades for fighting wrongdoing. That was the time of Roy Ferrer as acting president and CEO of PhilHealth.

    We do not know if Roque got his appointment to talk with the President, but what we know is that Ferrer was replaced by — predictably so — another retired general, Ricardo Morales. But it was like changing of the guards at the Rizal Monument in Luneta. Incumbent honor guards were changed following the end of their shift, and new guards arrive, but the Monument stays the same. In the case of PhilHealth, it was the monument of official corruption.

    Recently, PhilHealth was wracked with the high-profile resignations of lawyer Thorrsson Montes Keith, the agency’s anti-fraud legal officer, and Etrobal Laborte, the head executive assistant of Morales. Aside from corruption which he blamed on Morales, Keith said his principal reason for leaving was his opposition to the mandatory payment of PhilHealth contributions of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), which he deemed as “unconstitutional or not part of the Universal Health Care law.”

    We remember Morales as the official who insisted to Quezon 4th District Rep. Angelina Tan, chair of the House Committee on Health, and Sen. Christopher Go, chair of the Senate committee on health, that OFWs should not make permanent the temporary arrangement earlier ordered by Duterte — that OFWs may pay their contributions or premiums voluntarily only. Morales reasoned out that this would be financially debilitating for the state health insurer. This happened at the recent Joint Congressional Oversight Committee hearing on the Universal Health Care Law.

    Inasmuch as various groups of OFWs have differing ideas on the issue, Tan, who is also a physician, proposed that whatever solution or action PhilHealth would take on the question of OFWs’ voluntary premium payments, it should be based on scientific actuarial studies. She then proposed that a “core group” of experts from the House, the Senate, the DOH, PhilHealth, the Department of Budget and Management, the Department of Finance, and other stakeholders conduct the actuarial study.

    Incidentally, Morales bared that as of April 30, 2020, PhilHealth’s benefit expenses had outpaced the agency’s premium collections by over P5 billion. He said the agency has benefit expenses of P52.5 billion and total premium income of P46.5 billion. “In other words, we are spending 13 centavos more per peso than we collect as premiums,” he said.

    We wonder if this is in fact accurate, because many hospitals, including their association, have been complaining about slow reimbursements from this agency. Perhaps, the medical doctor-turned-congresswoman from Quezon and the Malasakit guy who sits in both the Palace and the Senate should look into this problem.