The cancer in PhilHealth
BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Ambassador B. Romualdez (The Philippine Star) - August 16, 2020 - 12:00am

As far back as six years ago, I was already getting anonymous text messages about a syndicate operating in the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation. Allegations of diversion of funds, “up-casing” of illnesses and fraudulent exorbitant claims for ghost treatments that were never really seriously investigated. Nobody wanted to touch it – it was an open and shut case like a cancer cell that had already metastasized.

This massive corruption involving PhilHealth has totally hit the fan, so to speak. Filipino-Americans here in the United States have been watching with keen interest the Senate hearings, especially with revelations about a PhilHealth mafia that has been bleeding the agency dry over the years, pocketing as much as P15 billion in 2019 alone.

According to a PhilHealth official, the government-owned corporation could incur losses of up to P90 billion this year and P147 billion in 2021 due to decreased collections and an increase in payouts for hospitalizations – resulting in a deficit which means the funds could run out by 2022, leading to a collapse of the health insurer unless the government increases its yearly subsidy of P71 billion. PhilHealth’s claim about possible bankruptcy was disputed by legislators who said the agency should still have P110-P112 billion in reserve funds entering 2021.

People are so infuriated at the seemingly cavalier attitude of PhilHealth president Ricardo Morales, who said the 7.5 percent level of corruption in PhilHealth is lower compared to the global average of 10 to 20 percent, and using this as a justification for a proposed ICT project which, according to whistle-blowers, has overpriced laptops and questionable items that bloated the budget by P734 million.

Senator Ping Lacson also slammed suspicious transactions involving a dialysis center which, according to SEC records obtained by Senator Lacson, is unregistered and yet received P45 million in cash advances through the Interim Reimbursement Mechanism (IRM) meant for hospitals treating COVID-19 patients.

It is simply disgusting and disgraceful that this should happen at a time when people are already suffering from the impact of the pandemic – many going jobless, getting sick or losing loved ones. Clearly, this cancer must be removed; otherwise, the rampant corruption could destroy the entire health system of the country.

Unfortunately, the PhilHealth scandal has also dragged institutions like the Southern Philippines Medical Center because it received a big amount of the IRM for coronavirus treatment compared to other hospitals. In an email, one of Davao City’s top cardiologists, Dr. Bernard Chiew, explained that contrary to reports that it is just an infirmary clinic, SPMC is the biggest government hospital in the country with 1,500 beds. Its Department of Internal Medicine alone – which is largely responsible for taking care of COVID-19 patients – has 83 medical residents and 95 medical consultants.

SPMC is the only government hospital in Davao City, serving the whole of Mindanao. In addition, SPMC serves as the only COVID-19 center in the Davao area, Dr. Chiew said. “Because we are smart here in Davao, we centralized the treatment of COVID. Until recently, private hospitals were not allowed to admit COVID (patients). Now, only mild cases of COVID are allowed in private hospitals. It is still SPMC which is ground zero for the COVID treatment. By doing this, we are able to maximize manpower and resources and streamline our response,” he explained.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, SPMC on the average has been taking care of more than 130 in-patient cases daily (about 100 adult and 30 pediatric cases), and this does not even include the hundreds of other non-COVID-19 cases handled by the hospital, the cardiologist added.

In any case, many Filipinos are looking forward to the President’s plan to mercilessly go after officials involved in the massive corruption at PhilHealth, and are all waiting for the result of the investigation by an interagency task force that will have the power to conduct lifestyle checks and issue preventive suspension orders to PhilHealth officials.

Stealing is already bad enough, but stealing from the sick and the poor is downright evil. What’s happening in PhilHealth reminds me of the misery that was caused when 10,000 people died in Leyte, Samar and many other places in Central Visayas during the onslaught of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013. People were already suffering, and a lot of aid that was supposed to help them pick up their shattered lives never actually reached them. Hundreds of millions of pesos ended up in the wrong pockets.

Absolutely evil and disgusting – and something that I could never forget because I saw firsthand the kind of suffering and devastation that Typhoon Yolanda victims went through, especially in Tacloban City that was declared as “ground zero.” Many people lost everything they had – including their loved ones, with hopes and dreams shattered.

I clearly remember calling the US embassy’s Military Attaché Colonel Rick Matton, passing on the message from my cousin, the mayor of Tacloban. The United States quickly dispatched the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, saving thousands of lives. That memorable experience is what I always recount to our friends here in the United States, underscoring the deep ties that bind our countries and our people.

There is no doubt a “special place” in hell has been exclusively reserved for those who took advantage of the poor people who suffered from Typhoon Yolanda. Many Filipinos wish presidential spokesperson Harry Roque’s pronouncement that “heads will roll” would literally take place soon so that those guilty of this evil corrupt act would go earlier to their rightful “super special place” in hell.

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