MANILA, Philippines — The task force formed by President Duterte to go after officials who allegedly misused billions of pesos in COVID-19 response funds of Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) has found “enough evidence” to indict Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, Sen. Panfilo Lacson said on Sunday.
Lacson, who had exposed the massive corruption in the state health insurer along with Senate President Vicente Sotto III, said Duque and other PhilHealth officials should not celebrate prematurely after they were not named in the criminal complaint that the National Bureau of Investigation filed in the Office of the Ombudsman last week.
He said Duque, resigned PhilHealth senior vice president Rodolfo del Rosario Jr. and the others could be included in the next batch of cases that the task force, led by the Department of Justice (DOJ), would bring to the graft buster.
“In fact, (Sotto) has it on good information that the task force has enough evidence against the others not initially charged, specifically Secretary Duque,” Lacson told the Inquirer.
He said the “inside information” was given to the Senate President by a “trusted source” in the task force.
Lacson also noted that Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra had previously said the list of people to be indicted was “not yet final” as the investigators were still reviewing evidence, including documents submitted by the Senate committee of the whole.
The task force, he said, might have just been “pressed for time” as the President gave it only 30 days to complete the investigation into fraudulent transactions that had cost PhilHealth P154 billion since 2003 and put it on the brink of financial collapse.
“It may be prudent to await the completion of their investigation,” Lacson said. “If the investigation has yet to be concluded, we might be speaking too soon.”
Sought for comment, Sotto confirmed that he was told by a reliable source that Duque would be among the respondents in the next batch of cases that the NBI would file.
“[My source] says yes, he (Duque) might be included in the next group of officials (to be charged in the Ombudsman),” Sotto said in a text message to the Inquirer.
The Senate committee of the whole, which Sotto had presided over, had moved for the filing of criminal and administrative charges against Duque, resigned PhilHealth president and CEO Ricardo Morales, Del Rosario and other
PhilHealth executives after conducting four public hearings.
The senators voted unanimously to adopt the committee report that the Senate President had prepared, which concluded that Duque and the others should be held responsible for misappropriating P14.9 billion in interim reimbursement mechanism (IRM) fund that PhilHealth allotted for hospitals treating patients infected with the new coronavirus.
The Senate also recommended the sacking of Duque, who had accused the senators of politicking and called their decision to indict him for malversation of public funds as the “height of injustice and unfairness.”
The Senate inquiry, which came on the heels of the series of Inquirer reports on unabated fraud in PhilHealth, forced Morales to quit his post.
Last week, the NBI finally charged Morales and eight of his subordinates for allegedly colluding in distributing P2.7 billion in IRM funds to 139 hospitals and health facilities, including maternity clinics and dialysis centers, in Metro Manila.
Named respondents along with Morales were PhilHealth Executive Vice President and COO Arnel de Jesus, Senior Vice Presidents Renato Limsiaco Jr. and Israel Francis Pargas, Vice President for National Capital Region (NCR) Gregorio Rulloda, NCR central office manager Lolita Tuliao, and other PhilHealth officials identified as Imelda Trinidad de Vera-Pe, Gemma Sibucao and Lailani Padua.
Reached for comment on Sunday, Morales said he had not yet received a copy of the complaint. “Let me confer with my lawyers and I will issue a statement at a proper time after receipt of the relevant documents,” he said.
The others have not issued statements as of Sunday.
Citing the admission of Del Rosario and Duque, the NBI said the release of the funds specifically earmarked for COVID-19 was “invalid and without legal basis” as PhilHealth officials violated the policies and guidelines that they themselves laid down for use of IRM funds.
Cash handouts illegal
The NBI supported Lacson’s view that the PhilHealth officials unlawfully handed out the cash bonanza to selected health facilities without completing the mandated documentary requirements, such as the resolution approved by the company’s board.
Besides squandering the IRM funds, the PhilHealth executives were also accused of doctoring the financial documents of the health insurer and overpricing a P2.1-billion information technology project, which was ironically designed to eradicate corruption in PhilHealth.
Lacson said while the NBI excluded Duque and the others, the DOJ’s investigative unit was able to use the documents and related pieces of evidence that the Senate panel had submitted to Guevarra in pursuing its own probe.
“By and large, they appreciated the testimonial evidence [of the whistleblowers] and other evidence that we sent them,” he said in a separate radio interview.
Asked if the senators were disappointed with the NBI’s action, the senator said: “We’re keeping our options open.”
“We can initiate the filing of cases versus those who were not charged by the task force,” Lacson said.
“Nothing prevents us from going to the Ombudsman as a body, as the entire Senate, or even Congress as a whole since the House is also doing its own investigation,” he added.
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