Senate urges Duterte to suspend PhilHealth chief Morales, other execs

JC Gotinga

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Senate urges Duterte to suspend PhilHealth chief Morales, other execs

CONGRESS' RIGHTS. Senate President Vicente Sotto III at the Senate Hall on August 3, 2020.

Photo from the Senate of the Philippines

Senate President Vicente Sotto III says he is 'surprised' PhilHealth chief Ricardo Morales and a few other executives were not suspended by the Ombudsman

The Senate on Wednesday, August 19, urged President Rodrigo Duterte to suspend the top executives of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation and its other officials tagged in allegations of fraud and corruption.

This came hours after Ombudsman Samuel Martires suspended 13 PhilHealth officials, including several top executives, for 6 months.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate adopted a resolution filed by Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri urging Duterte to “preventively suspend” PhilHealth’s top management and other officials involved in alleged corruption, fraudulent schemes, and refusal to supply documents for investigations and audits.

Although many of the officials the Senate wanted suspended are already included in the Ombudsman’s order, Senate President Vicente Sotto III noted that it exempted some “officials right in the middle of the controversies.”

Sotto said PhilHealth president and CEO Ricardo Morales, senior vice president (SVP) and information chief Jovita Aragona, and SVP and fund management chief Renato Limsiaco Jr should have been suspended by the Ombudsman as well, but were not.

“That surprises me,” Sotto said.

Morales, who is battling cancer, sent a message to Sotto during a Senate hearing of the PhilHealth mess on Tuesday, August 18, saying he is on medical leave. It was the only Senate hearing Morales skipped.

With several government agencies including the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the Commission on Audit (COA) running investigations of anomalies at the state health insurer, Zubiri said the President “should now compel the officers to take a leave of absence or be immediately suspended, to allow these agencies to do their job and get to the bottom of this corruption scandal.”

The agencies “should move quickly so these records can be secured before they can be tampered with, altered, or lost by unscrupulous individuals within [PhilHealth],” Zubiri added.

Zubiri expressed dismay over reports from the NBI and COA that PhilHealth had refused to supply them documents or cooperate with them during audits or investigations.

The Senate has held 3 marathon hearings to investigate the alleged corruption in PhilHealth, in which witnesses from within the state insurer revealed evidence of fraudulent schemes, manipulated financial statements, questionable fund releases, and inaction against reports of malfeasance in the organization.

The witnesses accused the top executives of complicity in the corruption, saying all of it has robbed the public of billions of pesos over the years.

‘Dismiss the doctor’

In the latest hearing on Tuesday, the Senate probe zeroed in on Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, the chairperson of PhilHealth. Duque, a medical doctor, has held different top management positions in PhilHealth for nearly 2 decades.

Questionable programs and decisions under Duque from as far back as the Arroyo administration led to the current financial woes of PhilHealth, witnesses told the Senate panel.

One of them was the “Plan 5 Million” PhilHealth cards Duque distributed ahead of the 2004 elections. PhilHealth’s Davao regional vice president Dennis Adre alleged the program was used to help then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s election bid that year. Duque strongly denied this.

Arroyo’s strongest rival for the presidency then was movie star Fernando Poe Jr, the father of Senator Grace Poe. 

Senator Poe on Wednesday said the government must be careful about whom it would appoint to replace the suspended officials. They must come from “outside of the usual pool of recycled appointees,” she added.

Poe criticized Duque for having failed to arrest PhilHealth’s problems during its early days, when the issues would have been easier to resolve.

There were already signs of corruption early on, and Poe said Duque “should have promptly excised them, but he failed.”

“That is why the cancer has metastasized, and that is why PhilHealth is reeling from a corporate version of a multi-organ failure,” said Poe.

“This leaves us with one prescription. To save the patient, we must dismiss the doctor,” she added. –

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.