Ombudsman suspends 8 PhilHealth officials
The ombudsman said the NBI’s prayer for preventive suspension must be granted as the evidence of guilt against the respondent PhilHealth officials appears to be strong.
STAR/File
Ombudsman suspends 8 PhilHealth officials
Elizabeth Marcelo (The Philippine Star) - October 29, 2020 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — The Office of the Ombudsman has ordered the six-month preventive suspension of eight ranking officials of the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) over the alleged anomalous implementation of the interim reimbursement mechanism or IRM program.

Ordered suspended for six months without pay were PhilHealth executive vice president and chief operating officer Arnel de Jesus, senior vice president on fund management sector Renato Limsiaco, senior vice president on health finance policy sector Israel Pargas, PhilHealth Regional Office-National Capital Region vice president Gregorio Rulloda, Benefits Administration Section head Imelda Trinidad de Vera-Pe, PRO-NCR Central Branch manager Lolita Tuliao, fiscal examiner Gemma Sibucao and fiscal controller Lailani Padua.

The suspensions are in connection with the ongoing investigation on the administrative charges filed against them by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI),

The ombudsman said the NBI’s prayer for preventive suspension must be granted as the evidence of guilt against the respondent PhilHealth officials appears to be strong.

PhilHealth president and chief executive officer Dante Gierran was directed to implement the suspension order.

De Jesus and the seven other PhilHealth officials are charged by NBI with administrative offenses of grave misconduct, gross neglect of duty and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service in connection with the alleged anomalous release of P2.709 billion in IRM funds in the form of cash advances to 139 healthcare institutions (HCIs) in the NCR.

The ombudsman said that under Section 24 of Republic Act 6770 or the Ombudsman Act of 1989, the ombudsman may preventively suspend a public official if the evidence of his guilt is strong; if the charged offense involves dishonesty, oppression, grave misconduct or neglect in the performance of duty; if the charge would warrant removal from office if proven guilty and if the respondent’s continued stay in office may prejudice the case filed against him.

The ombudsman said the complaint against the PhilHealth officials falls under these four pre-requisites for preventive suspension.

The ombudsman said the NBI was able to submit relevant documents that show the strong probability that the respondents are guilty of the charged offenses.

Among the documentary evidence cited by the ombudsman were various memoranda for the approval of the release of funds for IRM requests of PRO-NCR, various memoranda of agreement with the recipient HCIs, disbursement vouchers covering the IRM fund releases and official receipts from the HCIs covering the amounts received from PhilHealth.

“Since the respondents’ respective positions allow them to wield influence on possible witnesses and to access public records, their continued stay in office may not only prejudice the cases against them but also allow them to commit further acts of malfeasance,” the ombudsman’s suspension order read.

The order was signed by Ombudsman Samuel Martires yesterday.

The ombudsman said the suspension order is “immediately executory and shall not be interrupted notwithstanding any motion, appeal or petition that may be filed by the respondents” unless ordered otherwise by a competent court of jurisdiction.

It was last Oct. 2 when the NBI’s Task Force PhilHealth filed before the ombudsman the first batch of criminal and administrative complaints against several former and incumbent officials of the state insurance firm in connection with the alleged irregularities in the handling of the P30-billion fund for the IRM program.

The IRM are funds given to hospitals for their health crisis response, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Investigation by Congress, however, revealed that most of the healthcare centers and clinics given the funds do not cater to COVID-19 cases.

The IRM mechanism was ordered suspended at the height of the controversy to undergo a review by the Department of Health (DOH).

Meanwhile, the DOH is standing by its five officials who were meted preventive suspension by the Office of the Ombudsman over delayed release of compensation for COVID-19 frontliners.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said they have long known the five officials for their integrity in carrying out their responsibilities.

“The five officials, we are supporting them. They have been with us for decades already. They have rendered their sacrifice and commitment and integrity-wise, they can be trusted,” she noted.

Vergeire added they are hopeful the ombudsman will fast-track the resolution of the case so that the five officials can go back to work.

“It is in this time (of pandemic) when we need our people. These five people are playing critical roles in our pandemic response. Hopefully, normal situation will resume for them,” she said.

Suspended for six months without pay are Undersecretary Roger Tong-an, Assistant Secretaries Kenneth Ronquillo and Maylene Beltran, Director Laureano Cruz and Administrative Officer Esperanza Carating.

This stemmed from the delayed release of compensation for frontliners who have either died or suffered critical conditions due to COVID-19 infection.

Vergeire added that a preventive suspension is “not a penalty,” but a legal process that is undertaken to make sure that those being accused will not influence the outcome of an investigation.

For his part, Tong-an said he was surprised about the suspension as he answered the allegations in a document he submitted to the ombudsman.

“I was surprised why there has been a suspension. But we welcome the investigation of the ombudsman. In the spirit of transparency, I hope they will fast-track it because we have many things to do,” Tong-an maintained in an interview.

He added that being undersecretary for administration and finance, he has many vouchers and checks to attend to, while also “downloading funds to different regions” of the country.

According to him, the benefits were released late primarily because the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) did not allocate funds for it.

He said that in mid-April, they requested for some P2.5 billion, but DBM released “zero” based on the P67.62-billion budget allocation under the Bayanihan To Heal as One Act.

“So we had to look for a budget within the DOH. We looked for program (funds) that we will not use yet. We found it so we were able to release the benefits first week of June,” Tong-an added.

Aside from this, many DOH officials and employees also contracted the virus, prompting the agency to impose a lockdown on some of its offices. – Sheila Crisostomo

OMBUDSMAN PHILHEALTH
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