Duque defends failure to oversee PhilHealth: 'I had a difficult job handling the pandemic'

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 2) — Health Secretary Francisco Duque III defended himself anew from allegations that he failed to oversee the controversial reimbursement scheme of the embattled Philippine Health Insurance Corp., saying he has been focusing on his other roles in battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Hindi po ako nakasama sa pag-aaral nito (interim reimbursement scheme) noong unang panahon dahil sa tindi ng aking trabaho bilang chairman ng IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force), na ang aming tinutugunan ay yung mismong paglaki ng bilang ng COVID-19," Duque told lawmakers on Wednesday.

[Translation: I was not part of those who studied the implementation of the interim reimbursement scheme because of the impact of my functions as chairman of the IATF, where we directly respond to the growing cases of COVID-19.]

Duque faced the House Committee on Public Accounts and the Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability, a day after a Senate Committee of the Whole recommended to charge him, resigned PhilHealth chief Ricardo Morales, along with other ranking officials over the alleged misuse of the state health insurer's interim reimbursement mechanism or IRM.

"Talagang napakahirap po ng ating trabaho dahil maliban sa aking pamamalakad sa Department of Health, from PhilHealth, ay pinapangasiwaan ko pa ang IATF kung saan meron kaming 33 member agencies. Napakahirap po talaga," he reasoned.

[Translation: My job was really difficult because aside from running the DOH, checking on PhilHealth, I also head the IATF composed of 33 member agencies. This is really difficult.]

The non-voting rule

In a statement on Tuesday, Duque said as PhilHealth chairman he has no vote in board decisions under the universal healthcare law. He added he did not sign the resolution allowing advance payments to hospitals for COVID-19 response.

Senators said the chairman still has to oversee the agency's affairs.

"It doesn't mean that just because they cannot vote, hindi na sila makikialam [they won't intervene]," said Senate President Tito Sotto. "It does not exonerate him from any liability."

The Senate also said Duque should be made answerable for "malversation of public funds" and for violating the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act. Senator Ping Lacson said there were 632 transactions involving the IRM, which is equivalent to 632 counts of malversation.

The Health secretary, noted, however, that he will cooperate with any inquiry on the controversy.

"As I have previously stated, I will cooperate with any inquiry on the matter by the concerned government agencies," he said. "I intend to clear my name."

Lawmakers have questioned the IRM's implementation which was intended to help hospitals continue operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the money was distributed to 279 facilities before requirements were completed. The requirements were met by June 11, but the agency already released over P14 billion from March 25, Sotto said. The committee also found that the funds released exceeded the estimated costs for COVID-19 treatment.

Duque has also been under fire for failing to manage both the PhilHealth and the DOH properly amid the pandemic.

"This is not the best time for the Executive to have a difference with the Legislative branch, but two weeks ago I went to the Senate to shed light on the issues based on my personal knowledge," Duque said.

The Health secretary serves as the highest official with the longest service to PhilHealth. Senator Grace Poe previously told Duque in the Senate probe that he "failed miserably" in solving long-standing corruption issues hounding the agency.