Ombudsman Samuel Martires ordered the suspension of eight Philippine Health Insurance Corp. executives and five Department of Health officials for various offenses.
Martires suspended PhilHealth Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Arnel de Jesus, PhilHealth COO for Fund Management Sector Renato Limsiaco, PhilHealth Senior Vice President Dr. Israel Paragas of Health Finance Policy Sector and five others for the alleged anomalous release of P2.7 billion worth of PhilHealth funds under the Internal Reimbursement Mechanism policy.
The suspension order came following the grave misconduct, gross neglect of duty and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of service complaints filed by the National Bureau of Investigation in connection with the release of PhilHealth funds.
The Ombudsman also placed under a six-month suspension (without pay) DOH Undersecretary Roger Tong-An, and Kenneth Ronquillo, Maylene Beltran, Laureano Cruz and Esperanza Carating for the delay in the release of benefits to health workers amid the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
They would also be investigated for their roles in the delayed procurement of personal protective equipment and other medical gear for the protection of health-care workers, lapses and irregularities that caused the death of several medical workers as well as the escalating number of deaths and infected medical frontliners, inaction in the release and processing of benefits and financial assistance of deceased and infected medical frontliners, and confusing and delayed reporting of COVID-19 related deaths and confirmed cases.
Meanwhile, DOH Health Undersecretary Ma. Rosario Vergeire confirmed the suspension of the five DOH officials during her regular press briefing.
“Yesterday we have received the decision coming from the Ombudsman. Lungkot na lungkot kami na at this time of the pandemic nagkakaroon tayo ng ganitong sitwasyon (We are very sad that this happened during the pandemic),” she said.
“Pero bukas naman po ang ating kagawaran sa anumang imbestigasyon at kung ano man ang kailangan ay kami ay mag-a-abide (But the agency is open to any investigation, and whatever is needed, we will abide by it),” Vergeire said.
Vergeire, however, vowed that the DOH will not intervene in the investigation being conducted by the Ombudsman.
“Ito pong preventive suspension ay hindi po ibig sabihin ay pinapatawan na sila ng penalty. Parte po ito ng legal process para hindi magkaroon ng implewensiya ang nasasakadal (This preventive suspension does not mean they would already be penalized. This is part of the legal process so that there would be no influence),” Vergeire said.
Vergeire, however, vouched for the integrity of its five officials who were meted with six-month preventive suspension without pay over alleged negligence in releasing benefits of health care workers amid COVID-19 pandemic, but vowed to cooperate with the probe.
“We are supportive of our officials. These five officials have been with us for decades, nagbigay ng sakripisyo, commitment. Integrity wise, mapagkakatiwalaan, kaya sana magkaroon na ng resolusyon ang kaso para makabalik na sila sa kanilang trabaho (These five officials have been with us for decades, gave their sacrifices, commitment. Integrity wise, they could be trusted, and we hope there would be a resolution soon so that they could return to their jobs).”
“In this time of a pandemic, these five people are playing critical roles in our pandemic response kaya, we hope na matapos na ito (In this time of a pandemic, these five people are playing critical roles in our pandemic response so, we hope this would end soon),” Vergeire said.
Anakalusugan party-list Rep. Mike Defensor, however, said that Health Secretary Francisco Duque III should also face criminal cases for alleged “gross negligence to graft linking him to irregularities within Philhealth”.
Defensor said the 65-page report approved by the joint panel of the committee on public accounts, of which he is the chairperson, and committee on good government and public accountability has recommended the filing of such charges against Duque.
He, however, echoed President Rodrigo Duterte’s belief that Duque did not steal any money from PhilHealth.
“The President was saying ‘you can charge with him with so many things pero ‘yung pagnanakaw hindi yan.’ I would support the President on that,” he said.
Even the Senate report did not reveal Duque got money as well as the members of the board, he noted.
Defensor said separate charges would be recommended for PhilHealth’s president and chief executive officer Ricardo Morales, vice presidents and other internal officials, and board of directors composed of Cabinet officials and other officers with Duque as its ex-officio chairman.
“[For Duque], it would be from gross negligence to actual graft,” he said.
He said Duque and the other board members should have taken steps on the matter of PhilHealth’s interim reimbursement mechanism being transferred to dialysis centers, infirmaries, and maternity centers.
“To me, I believe on what Secretary Duque had said that he was not among those who signed the IRM policy. Nevertheless, they (board) could have changed it when we were already discussing it. They could have immediately changed it,” he said.
“We were the ones to even insist that they must not release the fund, and not to further add and use it for probable and suspected cases. If not for the committee hearings conducted by the Senate and Congress, PhilHealth’s P50-billion fund could have been gone,” he added.
The IRM is a system where PhilHealth pays hospitals and health-care facilities in advance for insurance claims to enable them to function during crises.
Meanwhile, Senator Risa Hontiveros said the six-month preventive suspension without pay imposed on 44 Bureau of Immigration personnel and officials involved in the pastillas scam is a welcome and necessary development in the Senate investigation.
“Having led the pastillas scam inquiry for almost 10 months now, I am gratified to see that the sacrifices of our whistleblowers, the fruits of our labor, and the diligence of our law enforcers can bring erring officials to justice,” she said.
She, however, said the Ombudsman may have erred when it included whistleblower Jeffrey Dale Ignacio, who turned state witness by testifying how BI officials institutionalized corruption in the agency, in the suspension order.
“I hope the Ombudsman can consider reversing this order against Dale as his testimony, which completed the picture of the corrupt system in the BI, has been invaluable in our Senate probe as well as the NBI’s own investigation,” Hontiveros said.
“Nonetheless, I would like to thank Ombudsman Samuel Martires for acting on the results of our investigation, and I trust that his office will also go after the big fish — including those who are no longer in the BI and cannot be the subject of preventive suspension.
The opposition senator also commended the NBI for remaining steadfast in their resolve to charge anyone — even one of their own, such as Atty. Joshua Capiral — found to have been part of this money-making racket, one that only endangered the country’s borders and bring harm to Filipino women and children.
“ I am positive that with the bureau’s dedication, more corrupt BI officials will be held to account.”
According to Hontiveros, she hopes that both the NBI and the Ombudsman are as devoted to these cases as we are in my Senate Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations, and Gender Equality.
“Together, let us show that justice in this country can indeed be served,” she said.
For his part, Senator Christopher “Bong” Go welcomed the whole-of-government approach to intensify the campaign against corruption towards the remaining one year and eight months of President Rodrigo Duterte’s term.
Go commended President Duterte for heeding calls to create an expanded inter-agency task force mandated to resolve numerous allegations of prevalent systemic corruption in various government agencies.
The said task force will be mandated to investigate all issues of corruption in agencies, prosecute and file charges, conduct lifestyle checks, audit funds, recommend suspensions and put in jail those found guilty of corrupt practices.
He said the President repeatedly expressed exasperation at the corruption issues which he believed compromised the ability of the government to provide much-needed services to the people during a time when a global pandemic is draining the nation’s coffers.
Similarly, Go, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, believed the ongoing corruption also hampers the country’s ability to overcome the COVID-19 crisis.
It was Senator Go who recommended to the President the creation of a new and more empowered task force with an expand`ed scope to investigate reported anomalies in any government agency. The task force will operate until Duterte’s term ends in 2022.
The Department of Justice will lead the expanded task force. The justice department will be authorized to decide which allegations to investigate, taking into consideration their impact on the delivery of public services. It may also create as many panels as it deems necessary, and direct other government agencies to assist or be part of its panels, such as the Office of the Ombudsman, Commission on Audit, and Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission, among others..
Go issued a stern warning to all public servants that the Duterte Administration has not let up in its campaign against corruption. He urged them to strictly adhere to the values and standards set forth in the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees lest they be charged and potentially jailed.
Sen. Imee Marcos, meanwhile, said the reaction of a .task force against corruption has long been overdue.
“It’s last two 2 minutes for the administration,” said Marcos as she noted that all corruption allegations should be investigated.
“This should be immediately done after discovering the massive anomalies at Philhealth, Bureau of Immigration, Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Customs and the Department of Health and other government agencies,” Marcos said.
Senator Francis Pangilinan said that if the government is sincere to eradicate corruption, even those allies of the President should not be spared, since it appeared that the anti-corruption drive targets only those coming from the opposition.
“They might be slapped with trumped-up charges,” he said.
Pangilinan said the government’s anti-corruption drive, cleared or condoned allies, to the extent of not filing charges against them.
“They even got promoted or recycled in their position,” he added.