Facing House, Duque insists on innocence
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III prays during the launch of an anti- COVID campaign at Camp Crame earlier this week.
Michael Varcas
Facing House, Duque insists on innocence
Edu Punay (The Philippine Star) - September 19, 2020 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — Cleared by the special task force that investigated anomalies in Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth), Health Secretary Francisco Duque III reiterated yesterday his innocence as lawmakers grilled him at a hearing on his department’s proposed P203.74-billion budget for 2021.

“I am one of the 13 members of the board of directors. The board is a collegial body, but the chairman is the only one who doesn’t have a voting right,” he said when asked about his role in PhilHealth. As health chief, Duque serves as ex-officio PhilHealth chairman of the board.

Duque stressed he was not present when the controversial Interim Reimbursement Mechanism (IRM) was approved by the board.

Task Force PhilHealth, led by the Department of Justice (DOJ), did not include Duque in the list of those recommended for criminal and administrative charges over anomalies in the state health insurer.

President Duterte himself had assured Duque of his trust and confidence even while the task force’s investigation was ongoing. In its 177-page report, the task force said it did not find sufficient evidence to link Duque to major irregularities, particularly in IRM and in the procurement of information technology equipment.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra assured critics of the task force’s findings that investigation would continue, and that Duque and other members of the PhilHealth board are not yet off the hook.

Although hounded by controversy, PhilHealth will likely be allowed to keep the same amount of budget next year – at P71 billion.

After reiterating his innocence on the PhilHealth controversy, Duque then asked the House appropriations committee to increase the proposed budget of DOH for 2021 by at least P10 billion.

He told lawmakers that his department asked for P45 billion to fund the Health Facilities Enhancement Program for the full implementation of the Universal Health Care law in the time of COVID-19 pandemic.

The Department of Budget and Management only approved P4.7 billion for this item to cover equipment and medical transport and infrastructure projects under unprogrammed funds.

Overall, Duque’s office had asked for P138 billion but was only given P127.3 billion.

“This is not in accordance with the prescribed budget under the Universal Health Care law. We asked for far more. We were asking for P138 billion to be able to implement fully the provisions of the UHC law,” he said.

DOH officials added that P2.5 billion would be used for the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines to cover most risky sectors like medical frontliners.

They said at least P12.9 billion would be needed for the entire population, but the rest of the budget could come from loan programs of the state-run Land Bank of the Philippines.

Meanwhile, PhilHealth spokesman Rey Baleña said it would be a big loss for Filipinos if Duterte would make good his threat to abolish the state-run insurance firm.

“We respect the views of the President regarding this matter. But abolishing PhilHealth will have a big impact on our country because this is a very good program under the National Health Insurance Program,” Baleña told a press briefing.

Asked why corruption in PhilHealth thrived, he said it could be because of poor IT system.

“We believe this is because the system at PhilHealth is not fully automated, thus, allowing human intervention. This is why we are pushing for a comprehensive IT system, a very important reform at PhilHealth,” Baleña explained.

He also said PhilHealth as an organization is “100  percent” supportive of newly appointed president and chief executive officer Dante Gierran.

“We are giving him 100 percent of our support and cooperation, including his plans to reform PhilHealth. We support anyone who is appointed to lead PhilHealth,” he said.  –Sheila Crisostomo

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