SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - September 4, 2020 - 12:00am

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Senate President Vicente Sotto III, a.k.a. Tito Sen, has an answer: it depends on the time of the meal – breakfast or dinner?

In between regaling us with quips on OneNews / TV 5’s “The Chiefs” last Tuesday night, Sotto was completely serious in discussing the recommendations of the Senate Committee of the Whole on the mess in the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth).

The committee has recommended the indictment of PhilHealth officials including its resigned president and CEO Ricardo Morales as well as its ex officio chairman, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III.

Upon the prodding of President Duterte, Morales has resigned to focus on his battle with cancer. “Let history be my judge,” he said on Tuesday, even as he maintained his innocence and defended all his actions at the helm of PhilHealth. He also reiterated his readiness to face any investigation.

Duque also insists on his innocence and has lamented his inclusion in the Senate’s hit list for the mess, saying he had no hand in the alleged anomalous activities and transactions of PhilHealth particularly during the COVID pandemic.

Sotto, who wants Duque replaced, told us that either the health chief is lying or is guilty of negligence as PhilHealth chairman. Either way, Sotto thinks Duque’s goose (or chicken) is cooked – or should be.

*      *      *

Malacañang begs to disagree. As of Wednesday, according to presidential spokesman Harry Roque, Duque continued to enjoy the trust of President Duterte.

Roque said Duterte respected the Senate and its findings and recommendations on PhilHealth, but would rather wait for the report from the task force he created on the issue.

Sotto told us he didn’t mind because the task force, put together by the Department of Justice (DOJ) as ordered by Duterte, has obtained the report of the Senate Committee of the Whole.

Commissioner Greco Belgica of the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission, which is part of the task force, also told The Chiefs last Tuesday that the DOJ obtained the PACC report on PhilHealth anomalies. Both reports have similar recommendations on holding officials accountable for the mess.

Whether the reports will sway Duterte’s trust in Duque is uncertain. Everything seems personal to this President; as long as his handpicked officials have not done him or those close to him anything wrong, he can ignore any “whiff of corruption” or wrongdoing imputed to the officials.

He also values obedience – as he himself has indicated in explaining why he keeps appointing retired military and police officers to key civilian posts: they do as they are told, he says.

The reward for his trust continues beyond the service. We’re waiting, for example, for newly retired Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Archie Gamboa to get a civilian post.

*      *      *

Gamboa’s successor, Lt. Gen. Camilo Cascolan, is equally blessed. Cascolan,  the fourth member of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA)’s privileged Class of 1986 (starting with Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa) to get the top PNP post, will get the retirement pay and monthly pension of a four-star general after serving for just two months as national police chief. This is the cost of the revolving-door policy in the military and police (and now practiced even in the Malacañang-acquiescent Supreme Court). Can our severely cash-strapped country afford revolving-door pensions in this pandemic?

Cascolan was the operations chief in the implementation of Oplan Double Barrel, the PNP’s brutal war on drugs that he reportedly conceptualized together with Bato dela Rosa.

Social media posts following Cascolan’s appointment indicate stirrings of discontent within police ranks because of the ascent to the top PNP post of yet another member of the same PMA class – unprecedented in the PNP.

Cascolan could be competent and fully qualified for the post, in which case it’s unfair that he gets only two months in office. He could have been appointed much earlier if he is truly exceptional in his service. A possible reward for exemplary service is a term extension. But term extensions for the PNP and Armed Forces have been largely done away with, and it would be unfortunate if the practice is restored just to accommodate another member of a privileged PMA batch.

The president and commander-in-chief, of course, has the prerogative to pick persons of his confidence to fill key government posts. Unfortunately, when loyalty and personal ties trump qualifications for the job, it not only messes up the quality of public service, it also shoots down any chance of creating a meritocracy in our country.

When government posts are seen as rewards for loyalty and instruments of political patronage, there is little incentive for efficiency and integrity in public service. If officials favored by those in power can do no wrong, even when different investigations have uncovered not just a whiff but an explosion of anomalies, where’s the incentive for clean and efficient government?

The task force on PhilHealth might just come up with the same conclusions as the Senate Committee of the Whole and the PACC. But I can hear the next argument against replacing key health officials: there’s a public health crisis, and it’s not a good idea to change horses in midstream.

Tito Sen has an answer to this argument: you’re not changing the horse, you’re changing the rider.

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