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After emerging from a giant box, the young woman fixed her gaze on the man seated on a swivel chair, who chuckled as the rank-and-file giggled from the sidelines. The man looked on as she swayed her hips in a provocative dance, the rest of the audience – men and women of PhilHealth’s Region 4 office – laughing, cheering, egging her on.
The man was Paolo Johann Perez, Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) regional vice president, and it was his birthday. During a Senate probe on August 18, Senator Richard Gordon asked him why he allowed a scantily clad woman to perform in their office. Perez said it was their lunch break, and the performance was a surprise from his staff.
On Tuesday, August 25, Gordon showed reporters a video of that “lap dance” at the PhilHealth regional office which, he said, formed part of the Senate blue ribbon committee’s findings from its legislative probe into anomalies in the state insurer in August 2019.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, a member of the blue ribbon committee, later disavowed Gordon’s report, saying he had not seen or signed it.
Gordon is the head of the Senate panel.
According to Gordon, the panel found the existence of a “mafia” in PhilHealth, and among its supposed members are 7 of the agency’s regional vice presidents and one legal officer. Perez’s office party, Gordon said, was one of the many symptoms of this alleged mafia’s “pillaging” of the state insurer.
Gordon named 8 PhilHealth officials who comprise the so-called “Mindanao Group,” and whom he claimed were part of the alleged “mafia”:
- Paolo Johann Perez, Region 4-A vice president
- Valerie Hollero, Region 6 vice president
- Dennis Adre, Region 12 vice president, now on floating status
- William Chavez, Region 7 vice president, now on floating status
- Khaliquzzman Macabato, Bangsamoro regional vice president
- Miriam Grace Pamonag, Region 12 vice president
- Masiding Alonto, Region 9 vice president
- Jelbert Galicto, CARAGA legal officer
These officials have held their regional posts in PhilHealth for years – some longer than two decades. This entrenchment breeds connivance with local hospitals and doctors, Gordon said.
According to Gordon’s report, Hollero falsified her daily time record at work, as well as entries in board resolutions that led to the illegal release of P2 billion in salary adjustments.
Adre allegedly authorized 12 questionable payments to a doctor, for which he was charged with gross neglect of duty. Chavez’s office takes more than twice as long to process claims than the national average, the report said.
Macabato had been charged with gross misbehavior and misconduct. Pamonag allegedly pushed for an illegal “Christmas Package” for her office in 2016.
Alonto had been accused of extortion, and Galicto, of falsifying signatures on confidential hospital records.
When higher executives began checking on their affairs, these regional chiefs held on to their posts by turning up controversies to divert the issue, often at the expense of the higher leadership, Gordon said.
This is why some PhilHealth presidents had very short terms, the senator said.
Roy Ferrer, PhilHealth president from June 2018 to June 2019, was forced out after disclosing fraud and setting up an electronic system to identify fraudulent claims. Celestina Ma Jude dela Serna tried to rotate regional officials when she was president from April 2017 to June 2018. Eduardo Banzon, with an impressive background that included the World Bank, lasted only 14 months.
“The intrigues that came with the job was not worth the aggravation,” Gordon said of Banzon’s brief term as PhilHealth chief.
At every close call, the regional chiefs were able to maneuver things to their own advantage, and that could only be through conniving with other people in PhilHealth, Gordon said.
“The mafia is the whole bureaucracy. They spread the sunshine. I have no proof that everyone gets a cut but I assume that is what happens,” the senator added.
The most damning piece of evidence, according to Gordon, is that these officials remained “untouchable” through the years, despite controversies surrounding them.
After these officials faced off with PhilHealth president and CEO Roy Ferrer at the Senate probe in 2019, Ferrer ended up booted out, and they remained.
Now, another PhilHealth chief was shown the door – Ricardo Morales, whom President Rodrigo Duterte relieved for health reasons. Morales has faced serious accusations of corruption, or at least condoning it, but he was let go because he is battling cancer.
On August 4 and 11, Morales faced the Senate committee of the whole’s separate investigation of new allegations of massive corruption in PhilHealth. The probe revolved around the controversial Interim Reimbursement Mechanism (IRM), the agency’s allegedly bloated P2.1 billion IT budget and doctored financial statements, and the connivance of a “mafia” within the state insurer.
But in this more recent investigation, whistleblowers said Perez, Hollero, Adre, Chavez, Galicto, Macabato, Pamonag, and Alonto were the “heroes” in PhilHealth.
During the August 11 hearing, Senator Risa Hontiveros enumerated names to Thorrsson Montes Keith, an anti-fraud legal officer at PhilHealth, and Alejandro Cabading, a member of the PhilHealth board. Hontiveros asked them to tell whether the people she named were members of the alleged mafia.
Hontiveros named these 8 officials, and both Keith and Cabading categorically said, no, they were not members of the mafia.
In the final hearing of the probe on August 18, Cabading said these officials were “the good guys,” who were “crusaders” against corruption in PhilHealth, as they themselves earlier claimed.
In an earlier hearing, Keith said there is a mafia within PhilHealth, but he named a different set of people as its alleged members:
- Rodolfo del Rosario, senior vice president of the legal sector
- Dennis Mas, senior vice president of the management services sector
- Renato Limsiaco, senior vice president of the fund management sector
- Jonathan Mangaoang, corporate secretary
Keith claimed that this “mafia” misspent or pocketed some P15 billion in PhilHealth funds.
Del Rosario tendered his “irrevocable resignation” on Wednesday, August 26. He denied the allegations against him.
‘They’re all one mafia’
These conflicting claims on the alleged PhilHealth mafia members led senators at the probe to ask whether there could be more than one mafia within PhilHealth.
Gordon on Tuesday said having two or more competing mafias in the state health insurer is improbable, but certainly “all the hallmarks of a mafia are there.”
“They’re all one mafia,” he added.
Gordon said he wants to see that mafia – whoever they are – prosecuted. With the amount of evidence gathered by the different investigations done on PhilHealth, it would be absurd if no one is made accountable for the state insurer’s losses.
Asked if he thought the PhilHealth regional vice presidents had a stronger hold on power than the executive committee, Gordon said he tended to agree.
PhilHealth presidents and executives have come and gone, but the bleeding of funds due to fraud and other irregularities continues.
“There has been no concerted effort to get the rascals out of PhilHealth,” Gordon said.
During the August 18 hearing, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III admitted it was possible that a syndicate existed in PhilHealth. Duque has been with PhilHealth in different capacities, including as president, for nearly two decades. As health chief, Duque is the state insurer’s ex-officio chairperson.
Duque has come under harsh criticism from senators and other quarters for letting all these things happen under his watch.
Duque is accused of taking advantage of his position in PhilHealth. Adre, one of the alleged mafia members, claimed that Duque used the the Plan 5 Million health card scheme in 2004 to bolster Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s presidential campaign in that year’s elections.
With several congressional and Executive investigations underway, PhilHealth officials have either gone on leave or have been suspended.
Perez, Hollero, Alonto, Macabato, Adre, and Chavez filed their leave of absence effective Monday, August 17, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque confirmed on August 16.
Roque said the Department of Justice called on the officials to temporarily leave their posts during the investigation.
Roque noted that these 6 officials “are not the mafia” according to Lacson.
“They were, in fact, referred to as ‘heroes’ by PhilHealth board member Alejandro Cabading during his Senate testimonies,” Roque said.
Morales said he would submit his resignation letter to Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea on Wednesday. The previous day, President Rodrigo Duterte asked him to leave his post because of his health condition. – Rappler.com