Failed miserably? Duque tells senators he’s doing his ‘best’

Bonz Magsambol

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(UPDATED) 'The numbers will show that you have failed miserably as the leader of both PhilHealth and DOH,' Senator Grace Poe tells Health Secretary Francisco Duque III

Secretary Francisco Duque III on Tuesday, August 18, insisted before a Senate panel that he has been trying to do his “best” to lead the public health sector amid criticism of his failed leadership and allegations of corruption at the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth), which he chairs.

“I am for zero tolerance on fraud and corruption,” Duque told senators, reading from a prepared statement as he appeared for the first time at the Senate probe into alleged corruption allegations at PhilHealth.

He denied allegations of corruption and mismanagement of PhilHealth funds, and defended PhilHealth president and CEO Ricardo Morales, telling senators that Morales had held the post for only a year. (READ: PhilHealth denies senior officials stole P15 billion worth of funds)

During Tuesday’s hearing, senators called out Duque for his poor leadership at the DOH and PhilHealth despite having served the agencies in a past administration.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon told Duque that he “should assume responsibility” for the state of the coronavirus outbreak in the country, which has the most number of cases in Southeast Asia, to date, and to stop pointing fingers.

Responding to Drilon, Duque said: “I take full responsibility of my decisions and actions and the effort that’s, let’s say – I’m trying my best. There was never a time when I did not try my best. If my best is not enough, I just have to do some reflection and soul searching. I will be the first to let everyone know we need to learn.”

“If there have been some lapses in terms of our initial response, those were not deliberate. They were the product of honest assessment of all the data and facts that were coming in,” said, as he reiterated that he relied on the guidance of the World Health Organization (WHO) early on.

Senator Grace Poe cited Duque’s failure in leading his department and the national state insurer despite his institutional knowledge.

“The numbers will show that you have failed miserably as the leader of both PhilHealth and DOH” Poe said.

Poe noted that many have been asking for Duque’s resignation but he had chosen to remain in his post despite the clamor.

“Eleven years na kayo diyan, paulit-ulit lang ‘yung nangyayari. Ano ang solusyon na naiiba ngayon na hindi ninyo nagawa noon? Alam ‘nyo marami nang humingi ng inyong pagbibitiw. Pero kayo mismo hindi ‘nyo inakala na magbigay ng kortesiyang ganoon sapagkat sabi mo nga your best is not good enough, but you’re continuing, you’re still there in that agency,” she said. 

(You’ve been there for 11 years, and the same thing has been happening over and over again. What kind of solution can you do now that you can’t do before? You know, many are asking for your resignation. But you yourself haven’t even given that courtesy, because you as you said, your best is not good enough, but you’re continuing, you’re still there in that agency.)

Duque has been serving the state insurer for 11 years now. He served as president from 2001 to 2005; PhilHeath chairman from 2005 to 2010, and was reappointed in 2017. 

Senator Risa Hontiveros said Duque has failed to address the “systemic corruption” in PhilHealth.

“As Health Secretary and as chairman of the PhilHealth Board of Directors, Secretary Duque cannot wash his hands of the corruption in PhilHealth and the billions of pesos in public health funds that have been abused and misused. He can’t say that he doesn’t know of any irregularities, because it is his duty to know and stop such things,” she said.

Response to allegations

In July, PhilHealth anti-fraud legal officer Thorrsson Keith Montes resigned and exposed “widespread corruption” in the state insurer.

Duque addressed the Senate resolutions before the Senate Committee on the Whole. On the claim of detained Senator Leila de Lima that 300 PhilHealth-accredited  hospitals were on the verge of closure due to unpaid benefit claims, he said he will confer with the senator to further verify these hospitals.

“Our data shows that benefit claims were regularly and systematically released to those [that submitted complete requirements],” Duque said.

He reiterated that PhilHealth did not suffer a P154 billion loss over the years through alleged fraud schemes and overpayment of P102.5 billion. 

Duque also denied the supposed overpriced IT (information technology) equipment, saying that “there has been no release of any funding on this project since everything is still at the proposal stage.” (READ: PhilHealth’s proposed ICT budget bloated by P734 million, says official)

“To date, the Board has yet to decide on how to implement this much-needed IT project, because we need to assure that any release of the government money for this will be scrutinized in detail,” he added.

Duque also echoed the defense of PhilHealth officials on the implementation of the controversial Interim Reimbursement Mechanism (IRM), saying that it was not only specific to COVID-19 treatment as it was “based on the provisions of the National Health Insurance Act and the Universal Health Care Act that gives flexibility to implement financing mechanisms to ensure provision of benefits for Filipinos.”

He maintained that there is no favoritism in the IRM implementation after a Senate inquiry on August 11 revealed that the Southern Philippines Medical Center in Davao City got the lion’s share of the IRM – P326 million – even if the Davao region which it served ranked only 6th among regions with the highest number of COVID-19 cases.

On August 14, PhilHealth suspended the implementation of the IRM and vowed to “find ways to make the IRM more responsive to the needs of healthcare facilities affected by the current pandemic to assure patients of continuous access to needed health services.” (READ: PhilHealth suspends IRM amid corruption allegations)

Duque has also been criticized for his leadership in the health department, making the Philippines as one of Southeast Asia’s laggards in COVID-19 response.

During the hearing, Senate President Vicente Sotto III said that Morales sent word that he was on medical leave, and was to submit a letter to the panel that day. PhilHealth Executive Vice President Arnel de Jesus also did not attend the hearing, citing a scheduled medical checkup, Sotto said.

As of Tuesday, the Philippines recorded 169,213 cases of COVID-19 – the highest in Southeast Asia – and registered 2,687 deaths and 112,861 recoveries. –

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Bonz Magsambol

Bonz Magsambol covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler.