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Thursday, May 31, 2018

The bigger scandal

I’VE often wondered why Noynoy Aquino required huge, heavy-gauge steel gates to protect his Times Street home in Quezon City from the people he used to call his “bosses.” Now I think I’m beginning to understand.

It would be extremely difficult to find an alleged anomaly bigger than the P3.5-billion Dengvaxia scandal. But the same people in the Department of Health who used 830,000 children as guinea pigs for an unproven vaccine under the previous administration could have done just that, in peso terms at least, with the diversion of P10.6 billion intended for the health insurance premiums and benefits of senior citizens to a questionable health center building program.

The alleged massive diversion of Philippine Health Insurance (PhilHealth) funds, by the way, took place at around the same time as the Dengvaxia purchase. And it appears that the same top officials of the administration of then President Noynoy Aquino who pulled off the reported vaccine scam were also behind the siphoning of PhilHealth contributions.

But there was a glitch in the plan: the new PhilHealth board, which found out about the diverted funds after the Aquino administration stepped down, would not just play dead simply because Noynoy, his health secretary, the scandal-prone Janette Garin, and his top two lieutenants were involved. In this week’s joint congressional hearing on the missing funds, they declared that their predecessors in the PhilHealth board were remiss in their duties when they allowed the diversion without the requisite approval of the agency’s board.

The previous board, which included current Sen. Risa Hontiveros, apparently decided that they could not fight Malacañang’s approval of the fund diversion, which Garin had recommended. After all, it was requested in a memorandum from no less than Noynoy’s powerful executive secretary, Paquito Ochoa, and approved by the president’s “financial genius,” Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, before Aquino himself signed off on it.

And so it was that the PhilHealth fund diversion, according to records submitted to the Congress hearing, were approved and given official funding on the same day that the Dengvaxia program was greenlighted. That was on the December 29, 2015, the last working day for which such programs were allowed before they were banned because of the approaching May 2016 elections.

As bad as the Dengvaxia scandal was, some people believe that the PhilHealth scandal was worse. Several times worse, according to Senator Joseph Victor Ejercito.

“The diversion of the PhilHealth fund intended for the benefits of senior citizens, for me, is a heinous act three times more cruel than the Dengvaxia fiasco,” said Ejercito, chairman of the joint oversight panel. “I can only describe this act as heartless and insensitive to the condition of our senior citizens,” Ejercito added.

But how did the PhilHealth scandal happen? And when will the perpetrators land in jail for this execrable crime?

It all started, according to Ruben John Basa, PhilHealth chief operating officer, when Congress in 2015 approved the allocation of P37 billion in the national budget to pay for premiums of indigents, low-income earners, barangay workers and senior citizens after the agency lobbied to replenish its dwindling reserve fund. However, Aquino vetoed the allocation and declared that premiums and benefits for senior citizens shall be funded through unprogrammed funds of the 2015 national budget, amounting P10.6 billion.

Basa told Ejercito’s committee that soon afterwards, Garin and the then president of PhilHealth, Alexander Padilla, wrote Abad requesting the transfer of P10.6 billion “parked” in the Miscellaneous Personnel and Benefits Fund of the 2015 national budget and intended for the senior citizens’ benefits and premiums. Garin and Padilla, in a joint letter, requested Abad to immediately release the fund to augment a health facilities enhancement program that principally involved building health centers.

Basa said the PhilHealth board was not aware of the request to transfer the fund. “The matter was not presented nor approved by the Philhealth board of directors,” he said.

That was in August 2015. Incumbent Health Secretary Francisco Duque confirmed that Garin and Padilla’s request was made without the approval of the PhilHealth board of directors. He added that the proposal to divert the funds was made without considering the actuarial life of PhilHealth, which was already reeling from charges that it could not pay the health benefits of members seeking treatment in private hospitals.

In fact, according to Duque, the diversion caused the reduction of the life of PhilHealth’s reserve fund to 10 months, way below the 24 months reserve mandated by law. And to make matters even worse, Duque told the joint committee that the health center building program was an unqualified failure, with only 217 of 3,200 rural health centers supposed to be built given certificates of completion.

And yet, Abad and Ochoa both approved the request for the fund diversion, which was made, Duque said, at around the same time that Garin proposed the approval of the Dengvaxia vaccination program. Needless to say, Aquino himself approved both the dengue vaccine and the health center construction schemes.

Last March, PhilHealth filed graft charges against both Garin and Padilla in connection with the alleged fund diversion scandal; the two have stridently denied the allegations. No such charges have been lodged against Ochoa, Abad and Aquino, although the latest revelations will probably result in them being filed soon.

In the meantime, I suggest that Aquino check on the structural strength of the steel gates he had put up along Times Street to barricade his home. Because they have to be strong enough to protect him not only from the families of the children who got sick or died after being injected with Dengvaxia, but also from hordes of senior citizens who lost their medical benefits because of the diversion of funds intended to pay their insurance premiums.


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