Go on leave, senators tell PhilHealth’s Morales, other executives

JC Gotinga
The state insurer’s top executives should give way to investigations of alleged corruption, or else get suspended, say senators

Senators scrutinizing the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) have yet to find direct evidence that would implicate its top executives to the corruption scandal hounding the agency, but they said it’s best for these officials to take a leave of absence while they are being investigated.

Either that or they should be suspended, the senators said.

“We would actually push for the suspension of all these officers para naman mapabilis ang pagkuha ng mga dokumento at mapabilis ang imbestigasyon (to speed up securing documents and speed up the investigation),” Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri told reporters in a virtual briefing on Wednesday, August 12.

Zubiri noted that even the National Bureau of Investigation found it difficult to obtain documents from PhilHealth in previous investigations. With the Ombudsman “in the thick of investigating” the state insurer, Zubiri said orders for the officials’ preventive suspension may be forthcoming.

PhilHealth president and CEO Ricardo Morales should go on leave, the senators said, primarily because he is battling cancer, and undergoing chemotherapy.

“For humanitarian reasons, maawa din siya sa sarili niya (he should go easy on himself), so for the sake of his health, I think he should take a leave of absence,” Zubiri added.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the first 2 hearings of the Senate’s investigation have revealed prima facie or face value indications that massive corruption transpired under the watch of PhilHealth’s current leaders. 

“At this point, all those officials named should take a leave in order to prevent them from having access to the documents…. The best thing that can happen is that people named should go on leave while all these investigations are ongoing,” Drilon told reporters in a separate virtual briefing.

Senator Panfilo Lacson, whose exposé of PhilHealth anomalies has driven the Senate probe, agreed that the state insurer’s top officials should be suspended and their assets, frozen.

“Tama ‘yan. Ang problema, Executive ang may authority diyan. Sila may power under the law na magsagawa ng suspension,” Lacson told DzMM radio on Wednesday. (That’s right. The problem is, it’s the Executive that has the power under the law to mete out suspensions.)

Freezing assets, meanwhile, is the call of the Anti-Money Laundering Council, he pointed out.

Which officials?

Zubiri said he agrees with the findings of the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC), which recommended relieving 37 PhilHealth officials over corruption allegations.

These should include “the top executives down to the vice presidents, and the executive board,” Zubiri said.

“I would suggest for the meantime they be given preventive suspension at the very least,” he added.

So far, however, there is no evidence yet to directly link any of these officials to the anomalies unearthed during the investigation, the senators said.

Kung evidence ang pag-uusapan natin (If we talk about evidence), we’re not yet there,” Lacson said.

Although Morales authorized some transactions and planned procurements that have since come into question, Lacson and Drilon said this isn’t enough to incriminate him.

Direct evidence, wala, except that inamin niya naman last week na siya nag-authorize ng pagbayad sa B. Braun (Direct evidence, none, except that he admitted last week that he authorized the payment to B.Braun),” Lacson said.

B. Braun Avitum Philippines Incorporated is a chain of dialysis clinics that received P45 million in PhilHealth funds meant for healthcare institutions (HCI) that handle COVID-19 patients.

“Let me make it clear. There is no evidence that Morales is directly involved in any of these shenanigans that are being unearthed,” Drilon said.

PhilHealth is being investigated by the PACC, the executive task force, the Ombudsman, the Commission on Audit, and both chambers of Congress.

Questions on Morales’ competence

For more than 9 straight hours, PhilHealth top executives on Tuesday, August 11, defended themselves against even more allegations of anomalies. It was the second hearing of the Senate’s legislative probe.

Besides Morales, PhilHealth senior vice presidents Rodolfo del Rosario Jr, Jovita Aragona, and Renato Limsiaco Jr faced the toughest questions from the senators.

Del Rosario, head of PhilHealth’s legal sector, allegedly deferred taking action against corruption cases. One witness, Thorrsson Montes Keith, linked him to an anomalous P9.7 million transaction with a rural bank in Bataan. Del Rosario denied the allegations.

Aragona, PhilHealth’s chief information officer, tried to justify the procurement of 24 network switches for about P320,000 apiece, when the market price for the items was only around P62,000 each – with a newer model available. Lacson later said Aragona’s attempt to “mislead the committee was rather clear.”

Limsiaco, who leads PhilHealth’s fund management sector, faced questions about the controversial Interim Reimbursement Mechanism (IRM), a system of advanced payments to HCIs to help them deal with the pandemic.

Although Drilon withheld judgment on Morales, he said the PhilHealth chief may be in over his head.

“It is also clear to me that the people around him are doing something else. In the street language, napapaikutan si Mr Morales (Mr Morales is duped). He should take stock of this. He should take strong and aggressive measures,” Drilon said.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Senator Grace Poe pointed out that Morales, a retired military general, had neither the background in public health nor finance to fulfill the legal qualifications as PhilHealth boss. Morales’ appointment had been President Rodrigo Duterte’s bid to rid the government-owned corporation of corruption.

“In a way, he will not be able to fall within the qualifications but…supposed to be, he’s an anti-corruption crusader, which was why President Duterte chose him. I don’t want to short-guess the reasons why the President put him there,” Zubiri said on Wednesday.

Drilon suspects there are two opposing factions within PhilHealth, and disparities in the release of IRM funds are telling on Morales.

“To me, this indicates that Mr. Morales has somehow, wittingly or unwittingly, favored one of the factions. Therefore, that is not a very good indication of his leadership in PhilHealth,” Drilon said. –

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.