'Naunahan pa DOH': Senators question PhilHealth's issuance of funds in January to hospitals intended for pandemic

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PhilHealth officials are defending the agency's use of a reimbursement mechanism intended for the pandemic, authorized way before the national government even recognized the COVID-19 crisis.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 11) — PhilHealth officials are defending the agency's use of a reimbursement mechanism intended for the pandemic, authorized way before the national government even recognized the COVID-19 crisis.

The Senate Committee of the Whole resumed its probe on controversies hounding the state insurer, questioning the release of documents authorizing the interim reimbursement mechanism (IRM) fund releases to hospitals, which were supposedly intended for COVID-19 emergencies.

Embattled PhilHealth chief Ricardo Morales, who was virtually present, said: "Ang intensyon ho ng PhilHealth ay maunahan iyong pandemic."

[Translation: The intention of PhilHealth was to preempt the pandemic.]

"Naging alarmado kayo. Nauna pa kayo sa DOH? (You were alarmed by the pandemic, way before the Department of Health was?)" Senate Vicente "Tito" Sotto III said during the hearing.

The panel was questioning the adoption of Board Resolution 2496 from January 2020 which would supposedly address the pandemic, but was only initially intended for other "fortuitous events"—such as floods, typhoons, insurgencies, or other man-made acts. An IRM is a mechanism which can be availed of by eligible hospitals directly hit by these events to provide continuous health care services to their patients.

Senator Panfilo "Ping" Lacson and Senator Franklin Drilon claimed that officials may have just used COVID-19 as a "mere excuse," because even Health Secretary Francisco Duque III only warned the public about the crisis two to three months after.

It was only around March when PhilHealth officials issued Circular 2020-007 specifically mandating the processing of the IRM, and covering the pandemic. But Lacson said over ₱703 million IRM fund releases had already been issued to hospitals prior to the adoption of the resolution.

"The management submitted to the Board the use of IRM for the pandemic because of the magnitude of the amount to be released, that the management deemed it proper to release the IRM," said Board of Directors Corporate Secretary Jonathan Mangaoang.

But according to PhilHealth board member Angelo Cabading, officials did not even bring up the pandemic in its January meeting.

The agency bared that Southern Philippines Medical Center, based in Davao City, got the highest amount of compensation under the IRM worth ₱326 million.

Davao City is located in Davao region, which is President Rodrigo Duterte's hometown.

Davao Regional Medical Center in Tagum City also received ₱209 million.

Senator Cynthia Villar also revealed that based on data she got from PhilHealth, only one facility, a government hospital, received an IRM in Western Visayas. In the previous hearing, other senators raised that private institutions were given priority.

Morales blamed the regional vice president in Western Visayas for alleged slow processing of IRM requests. However, Lacson presented reports showing the regional official had already been sending letters to Morales to follow up on the approval of their IRMs. Morales backtracked, saying he would re-check the records.

"So it's unfair... that you're blaming right away the regional director because ito lumalabas na nagfafollow-up sa inyo p this is what is showing up that she was following up with you]," said Senate President Tito Sotto.

PhilHealth corporate legal counsel Atty. Roberto Labe Jr. said IRM funds were covered by receipts, and that funds were not "pocketed by anyone as alleged."

During last week's Senate hearing, some PhilHealth officials were accused of stealing some ₱15 billion from the agency, apart from other fraudulent schemes.

In his address to the nation late Monday evening, President Rodrigo Duterte warned that he would get rid of PhilHealth officials found liable for acts of corruption.

Where is Duque?

Amid the turmoil in PhilHealth, Senator Risa Hontiveros raised that Health Secretary Francisco Duque has been silent on the matter.

Hontiveros, who used to be in the PhilHealth board with the secretary, urged Duque to speak up on the mess surrounding the agency.

The senator pointed out that Duque had been present in 15 out of 18 of the corporation's board meetings last year, adding that Duque was also informed about the alleged "mafia" in the agency previously.

"Why is the Health Secretary unscathed in all of this?" Hontiveros argued.

The senator also pointed out that Duque assumed several high positions such as President, board member and board chair of the state insurer since 2001.

"He cannot feign ignorance," the senator said.