Senate vindicated, and how
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - October 30, 2020 - 12:00am

If there is one piece of legislative work that they do in Congress, Senate president Vicente “Tito” Sotto III vouches for each of the committee report that comes out from their “inquiry in aid of legislation” against alleged anomalies and venalities involving government officials and state agencies. Such Senate Committee Report that goes through the whole legislative process – from first reading and referral to public hearing ends up being debated upon at the floor – is as good as the bills approved into law, Sotto pointed out.

One great example of that, Sotto cited, was the recently completed investigation of the Senate Committee of the Whole that looked into the reported pernicious and anomalous transactions taking place at the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth). While the government have been busy addressing the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the graft syndicate deeply entrenched at the PhilHealth reportedly went on with their illegal money-making transactions amid the on-going public health emergency crisis.

Foremost of these reported shenanigans at the PhilHealth were the questioned interim reimbursement mechanism (IRM) that was apparently being abused at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The PhilHealth issued cash advances to healthcare institutions even as the IRM’s legal basis remains unclear. At the Senate hearings, it turned out as much as P15 billion worth of PhilHealth funds were released to various healthcare providers nationwide.

In this week’s Zoom Webinar Kapihan sa Manila Bay we had last Wednesday, Sotto credited the Senate in unmasking the PhilHealth syndicate members during the three public hearings they conducted in August. Chairing the Committee of the Whole, Sotto physically presided the marathon public hearings at the Senate session hall, with the rest of the Senators and their invited resource persons – including the top executives of the PhilHealth – either attending in person or virtually.

The Senators also took to task the officials from the Department of Health (DOH) led by Secretary Francisco Duque III who sits at the PhilHealth board of directors. Duque’s washing his hands off on the reported anomalous deals at the PhilHealth angered all the more Senators.

Because much earlier, Senate Resolution 362 issued on April 16 and signed by at least 14 Senators called for the resignation of Duque. They scored the DOH Secretary’s alleged “failure of leadership” as the co-chairman of the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emergency and Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID). This was three months after President Duterte reactivated the IATF-MEID following the outbreak of local transmissions of the COVID-19 in the Philippines.

On the other hand, ex-PhilHealth president and chief executive officer retired general Ricardo Morales resigned on Aug. 26, citing for reason his current medical problem. The next day, President Rodrigo Duterte accepted his resignation.

Nonetheless, the Senate president submitted on Sept. 1 the Committee of the Whole Report No.107 detailing their findings and recommended actions. It was signed by 22 Senators and submitted for the floor debate. And on Sept. 7, it was unanimously approved.

But while accepting the resignation of Morales, President Duterte ignored Senate Resolution 362 and repeatedly defended his embattled Cabinet member. In his most recent defense of the DOH Secretary last Monday, the Chief Executive insisted Duque was not even a part of PhilHealth.

In a rhetorical question, the President argued: “That’s why when Congress asked to suspend or oust Duque, I said, ‘For what?’…What ground would I base my decision? Would I just obey the cry of one million as against my assessment that Duque did not pocket anything when it comes to money is concerned? Maybe some other things he might be, some other things but corruption no, none.”

Even as it baffled him, Sotto conceded, they could do nothing but respect the President’s stand in the case of Duque. President Duterte himself is a lawyer and once served as anti-graft prosecutor that was previously called as Tanodbayan, and fiscal in Davao City before he became Mayor.

“That’s the President’s opinion but the Senate findings are very clear,” the Senate president quipped.

At the very least, Sotto echoed the Senate’s Committee Report that found Duque guilty of “negligence” punishable under Article 217 of the Revised Penal Code. The DOH Secretary allegedly failed to exercise leadership of his office that could help checked and stopped the nefarious transactions at the PhilHealth.

Sotto noted it was the Senate Committee Report that the Department of Justice (DOJ) used as starting point of their own full-blown investigation into the PhilHealth irregularities. The same Senate Committee Report was furnished to the Office of the Ombudsman. Sotto noted, even the House joint panel submitted almost the same findings and recommendations on the filing of criminal and administrative charges against Duque, Morales and 14 other PhilHealth officials.

“It’s not just a piece of paper but it’s the Senate Committee Report,” Sotto proudly declared.

Sotto advised anyone interested to read it can access easily the official Senate website. No need for “FOI” (Freedom of Information), he added in jest.

And yesterday, Ombudsman Samuel Martires suspended for six months without pay eight PhilHealth executives over the alleged anomalous release of P2.7 billion under the questioned IRM process. The National Bureau of Investigation, an attached agency of the DOJ, filed the cases against them before the Ombudsman. Just the other day, the Ombudsman meted out the same preventive suspension against five DOH officials for their inaction or delayed responses to COVID-19 related cases.

As the Senate president, Sotto finds comfort that their legislative initiatives in fighting corruption in government have been vindicated and how. In fact, Sotto comes close to President Duterte in the approval and trust ratings in the latest performance surveys on top government officials.

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