Senate panel recommends charges vs Garin, Abad, Padilla for 2015 PhilHealth fund mess

JC Gotinga
(3rd UPDATE) The former officials might have diverted P10.6 billion in PhilHealth funds to electoral campaigns in May 2016, says Senator Richard Gordon

The Senate blue ribbon committee led by Senator Richard Gordon recommended the filing of charges against 3 former officials of the Aquino administration involving their alleged use of P10.6 billion intended for the senior citizen members of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth).

In a virtual briefing on Tuesday, August 25, Gordon told reporters that former health secretary Janette Garin, former budget Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad, and former PhilHealth president & CEO Alexander Padilla made questionable use of the PhilHealth Senior Citizen Fund in 2015, diverting it to other projects that had failed to deliver.

The fund was disbursed in December 2015, months ahead of the May 2016 national elections. An election ban on the release of funds and construction of public works was to take effect on March 25, 2016.

“Kumbinsido ako na ginamit sa eleksiyon, dahil nakita ’nyo, kinuha lang ’yung advanced na pera. Hindi naman ginalaw na, ngayon magbabalik pa sila,” Gordon said.

(I am convinced it was used in the elections, because, as you can see, they just took the advanced money. Nothing came of it, and now they have to return it.)

Instead of covering senior citizens’ benefit claims, the P10.6 billion went to the supposed construction of Tamang Serbisyong Kalusugang Pampamilya (Tsekap) barangay health stations, rural health units, national government hospitals, and the procurement of mobile dental trucks.

Citing the Commission on Audit’s report, Gordon said only 426 of the planned 3,200 barangay health stations were built in Phase 1 of the Tsekap project. In Phase 2, only 12 of the planned 2,500 stations were completed.

The procurement of “Tsekap Kits” for the planned stations was overpriced, Gordon said. Each kit priced at P85,000 were actually only worth P25,000, based on the market value of its items. For example, a sphygmomanometer pegged at P2,500 could be bought from sellers in Bambang, Manila – a mecca for medical supplies – for only P600.

Gordon noted the “parallelism” between the 2015 Senior Citizen Fund and the Dengvaxia dengue fever vaccine controversy, saying “both were intended to siphon funds from PhilHealth to finance the 2016 elections.

Garin and Abad at the time were members of the Cabinet of President Benigno Aquino III. Garin is currently the representative of Iloilo’s first congressional district.

In May 2018, PhilHealth’s interim president Celestina dela Cerna filed a graft case with the Ombudsman against Garin and Padilla over the same P10.6-billion Senior Citizen Fund anomaly.

In its report, the Senate blue ribbon committee recommended that the Ombudsman conduct investigations “as to the possibility of filing plunder charges against the officers responsible in PhilHealth.”

Gordon said it is up to the Ombudsman to determine whether any of the charges the Senate panel recommended qualifies as plunder. By law, plunder is a corruption case that involves at least P50 million.

Besides the 3 officials, the panel also tagged PhilHealth’s regional vice presidents as members of an alleged “mafia” that “pillages” PhilHealth funds through organized fraud.

The report states Garin may have violated the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act. Garin, Abad, and Padilla may have committed technical malversation of public funds, and broken the Code of Conduct of Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.

These findings were part of the Senate blue ribbon committee’s report on its investigation into PhilHealth anomalies back in August 2019. It took the panel a year to finalize the report because of other investigations and the coronavirus pandemic, Gordon said.

This is separate from the recently concluded probe into PhilHealth anomalies by the Senate committee of the whole, which is expected to release next week its findings on other instances of alleged corruption in the state insurer.

In a statement on Tuesday evening, PhilHealth acting president Arnel de Jesus said the agency has yet to receive a copy of the Senate blue ribbon committee’s report.

“PhilHealth remains one with the government in all these investigations to ferret out the truth amidst allegations of corruption and irregularity,” De Jesus added.

Abad denies allegations

Abad vehemently denied the allegations, saying the charges Gordon recommended against him were “baseless, built on nothing but unfounded accusations.”

“Let me set the record straight. The basis of the charges against me – that I helped divert P10.6 billion originally intended for the payment of Senior Citizens premiums for PhilHealth – is a brazen lie. In the first place, there was no P10.6-billion budget to speak of. Not in the 2015 GAA (General Appropriations Act), not anywhere. How could funds be diverted if they were not in the budget to start with?” Abad said in a statement on Tuesday evening.

The P9.39 billion released for the Health Facilities Enhancement Program’s barangay health stations, rural and urban health centers, and dental equipment came from savings from unused personnel funds from the Miscellaneous Personnel Benefit Fund, Abad said. This was authorized under the 2015 GAA and was approved by the Office of the President, he added.

Abad noted that he was not mentioned in the executive summary of the committee report besides the part in which charges were recommended against him. In the 39-page document, Gordon did not present facts or any explanation of his supposed involvement in the alleged anomaly, Abad said.

The former budget chief said he was not given an opportunity to explain his side, and he finds the release of Gordon’s report “maliciously timed to confuse the public and distract them from the real PhilHealth scandal” the senator should be investigating. –