Philhealth President Ricardo Morales joined the agency in July 2019. Photograph from ABS-CBN News
Culture Spotlight

Man of the hour: Who is Philhealth president Ricardo Morales?

Once upon a time, Morales was a very different man from the kind he is currently being painted to be. BY JACS T. SAMPAYAN
ANCX | Aug 05 2020

A topic on a lot of people’s lips of late are the allegations of corruption within the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation, or Philhealth. A scandal has blown up following dramatic and very public resignations by some of its officials and executives, particularly anti-fraud officer Thorsson Montes Keith. Keith alleges that a “mafia” exists within the organization’s top brass who have pocketed amounts to the tune of PHP 15 billion from its member-sourced funds.

Following this and a Senate Hearing yesterday on the matter, Philhealth’s president and CEO Ricardo Morales had been thrust into the spotlight. Senators grilled the agency chief on questionable actions, including the apparent promotion of certain officials who have standing corruption cases and for supposedly letting flagrant overpricing in budgets fly.

“I don’t think there was an irregularity,” the retired army general answered after being questioned about a budget proposal for an org-wide IT upgrade project. Philhealth board member Alejandro Cabading also spoke to the Senate Committee of the Whole saying there were many discrepancies and redundancies in the proposal, with certain items varying wildly from Department of Information and Communications-approved prices. (One laptop, for example, was shockingly priced at PHP 115.32 million.) “I think it was a matter of explaining to the board,” Morales continued. “Information technology is a very complicated system.” The documents that Cabading presented, Morales also pointed out, were merely proposals and not contracts.

Morales was part of a RAM attempt in the 80s to unseat the Marcos presidency. Photo by Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

President Rodrigo Duterte asked Morales to head Philhealth in July of last year, following a trend of appointing retired military officials. A Davao native, Morales and the President go way back to when the latter was still Mayor. Mid-2019, Morales was filling in the unexpired term of Reynaldo Velasco at the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS), but was apparently asked to redirect his energies to Philhealth where there were purportedly bigger problems.

But the statements from Keith now make it look like Morales just contributed to the problems instead of solving existing ones at Philhealth, even alleging in a letter addressed to the agency chief that he might even be the new syndicate leader. Morales, on the other hand, say that the whistleblower was acting out because he was passed on for a promotion he was “not qualified” for, that he was kicked out of the PNP, and that he is facing sexual harassment allegations.


Reform and rebellion

In a profile for the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in 2011, Ed Lingao painted a portrait of Morales very different from how the man is being made to appear today. In the PCIJ piece, the military man was idealism personified, a revolutionary who never stopped asking questions when he spotted something that reeked of inefficiency or injustice.

A member of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) during Martial Law, Morales was a vital part in a plan to capture the Marcoses. He was then Imelda’s aide de camp and supposed to lead a group through the Palace to get to the First Family. The mission failed, and Morales and two other officers were presented to the public as members of an aborted coup d’etat and were promptly locked up at the Presidential Security Command (PSC) compound to await their fate. Instead of being executed, Morales was freed a handful of days later after the People Power revolution saw the Marcoses fleeing the country.

Before he retired from the military, Morales spoke out against what he perceived as inefficiencies and injustices within the AFP. Photo from PhilHealth's official website

The early 2000s provides a succession of examples of Morales expressing his displeasure against the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which Lingao detailed in his 2011 piece:

In 2003, he wrote a critique of the military’s failed attempt to crush the New People’s Army, citing poor leadership and corruption as the main reasons. A year after, he called the attention of then AFP chief of staff Narciso Abaya because he found it strange that no investigation was being done in light of corruption allegations against AFP comptroller Carlos Garcia.

In 2005, Morales posted a scathing message on a Philippine Military Academy alumni e-group, criticizing the military for building an PHP 18-million, 60-room Sampaguita Family resort in Boracay. (In the 70s, he also questioned budgeting decisions, asking why his comrades in a mission in Jolo had no chance of medical evacuation while he stayed in a five-star hotel in Makati just to write a field manual.) This apparently led to him being stripped of command of the 404th Army brigade in Davao del Norte, languishing in an “insulting” post as a Fort Bonifacio camp commander.

“He retired as a general in 2009 and now works as executive vice president and general manager of the Armed Forces-Police Mutual Benefit Association, Inc. These days, Morales says he feels as free as he did then—certainly free to say whatever he wants about the institution he had tried to serve well all his life,” wrote Lingao of Morales then.

Today, Morales is serving and heading a different institution, one that is under the people’s angry, fed up gaze because of a common battle we are all facing. We feel the sharper sting of this particular scandal for many reasons, not the least is this pandemic which has left thousands sick and jobless, and because Philhealth’s reason for being is to “implement universal health coverage” in the country. People are asking: Where is the Morales of old, the one who fired the unpopular and uncomfortable questions?

Today, he’s the one fending off allegations. “I’m only scratching the surface,” Morales said in an interview with ANC last week when asked how he plans to leave the agency in a better place than when he found it. “Corruption and inefficiency were already here when I got here. It’s been there for decades. And it’s going to be here after I live if we do not put in place a robust information system running clean and complete membership data. That’s the solution. And that’s where I am right now.”