Where’s Duque? Senators ask amid PhilHealth corruption mess

Amid staggering accusations of “systemic corruption” in the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth), senators called on Health Secretary Francisco Duque III to break his silence – explain what is happening, or at least show some resolve to fix the problem.

As the country’s health chief, Duque is the ex-officio chairperson of PhilHealth.

Duque was “the big elephant” in the room during the Senate’s first two investigative hearings on the PhilHealth mess, Senator Panfilo Lacson said in a statement on Thursday, August 13. Duque was absent from both hearings, but he is expected to attend a third one set for Tuesday, August 18.

“I really expect he should face and answer us and our questions. Kasi sa lahat ng ito, ang tanong ko talaga, nasaan si Secretary Duque? Bakit siya tahimik (Because in all of this, my question is, where is Secretary Duque? Why is he silent)?” Senator Risa Hontiveros said in a CNN Philippines interview.

“Duque is the chairman. He sits in the [PhilHealth] Board, and the Board should know all this happening…. Duque should demonstrate that he indeed stopped the corruption in PhilHealth,” Senator Sherwin Gatchalian told reporters in a virtual briefing.

As PhilHealth chairperson, Duque “wields a lot of influence,” and he can promptly investigate even rumors of corruption. His silence on the matter leaves room for a “syndicate” to keep stealing public funds, Gatchalian said.

Duque has held different positions in PhilHealth for for nearly two decades, and has the longest “institutional memory” among all the state insurer’s officials, said Hontiveros, who was PhilHealth director for 11 months prior to her election in 2016.

Hanggang saan ang involvement niya? Hanggang saan ang knowledge niya (To what extent is his involvement? To what extent is his knowledge)? He cannot feign ignorance for all of these under his watch,” Hontiveros added.

Lacson, who has been driving the Senate probe with his exposés of incriminating documents and witness accounts, said he already has questions in mind for Duque – if he attends the hearing on Tuesday.

Lacson said he would ask the health chief to name the people present in an alleged “shouting match” during a PhilHealth board meeting in late July. Sources told reporters that people in that meeting traded accusations of corruption, resulting in a heated argument.

That meeting was followed by the resignation of PhilHealth anti-fraud legal officer Thorrsson Montes Keith, who became a key witness in the Senate probe. Keith alleged that there is “widespread corruption” in PhilHealth.

“Why has [Duque] been very quiet in spite of all the anomalies being openly discussed, with so many unanswered questions involving highly questionable transactions by PhilHealth?” Lacson asked.

The senator mentioned the main allegations that have surfaced from the Senate investigation:

  • The planned procurement of information technology equipment for 2020, allegedly bloated by about P734 million
  • Disparities and “favoritism” in the distribution of funds under an Interim Reimbursement Mechanism (IRM), basically a system for cash advances
  • Alleged manipulation of PhilHealth’s financial statements, earlier flagged by the Commission on Audit
  • “Recurring disallowances and suspension in billions of pesos year in and year out”

“I’ll ask [Duque] what he intends to do or recommend to the President,” Lacson said.

Despite the government’s hamstrung response to the COVID-19 pandemic, led by Duque, President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly defended the health chief. Duterte said he would stake his reputation as President on Duque’s integrity.

Instead, Duterte has blamed Duque’s subordinates for lapses in the pandemic response. The President recently said his administration is “doing everything it can” to address the public health crisis.

Lacson, Hontiveros, and Gatchalian were among more than a dozen senators who have been calling for Duque’s resignation over what they felt was his ineptitude in leading the government’s response to COVID-19. – Rappler.com

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.

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