MANILA (UPDATE) - The Senate will convene as a Committee of the Whole next week to investigate the alleged corruption in the Philippine Health Insurance Corp (PhilHealth), Senate President Vicente Sotto III said Monday.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson earlier filed Senate Resolution No. 475 urging the chamber to constitute the Committee of the Whole to look into the "alleged rampant corruption, incompetence and inefficiency" that may lead to the bankruptcy of the state-run health insurance agency.
"Committee of the Whole kasi masyadong malawak 'yung sakop," he said.
(We convene as a Committee of the Whole because the scope of the investigation is too wide.)
"Hindi lang tungkol sa health, hindi lang tungkol sa PhilHealth, hindi lang tungkol sa violations at investigations of public officials," Sotto told reporters in an online press conference.
(It's not just about health, it's not just about PhilHewalth, it's not just about violations of public officials.)
Under the Senate's rules, only members of a certain committee are entitled to vote on issues during a legislative hearing, but all senators are given voting rights once the chamber convenes as a Committee of the Whole.
"Pinaka-focus ngayon diyan paano natin mai-improve 'yung batas na nag-create ng PhilHealth para hindi maulit 'yung mga nangyayari ngayon," the Senate President said.
(The focus will be on how we can improve the law that created PhilHealth to avoid repeating what is happening now.)
About 4 to 5 witnesses "will be providing evidence" to substantiate allegations of irregularities at the state-run insurance agency, Sotto said.
"I am receiving information from different groups on how PhilHealth is being run. We have to look into all of this," he said.
The investigation can begin on Friday, but the Senate secretariat may need more time to send invitations to guests, he said.
Lacson and Sotto have filed separate resolutions seeking to tackle alleged irregularities in PhilHealth after anti-fraud officer Thorrsson Montes Keith alleged that there is rampant corruption in the agency tasked to shoulder the COVID-19 testing and other medical fees of Filipinos.
Sen. Joel Villanueva meanwhile lamented the "unstoppable" corruption in the agency.
"Nakakalungkot pong isipin na sa gitna ng pandemya, mayroon pa ring mga nagsasamantala sa kaban ng bayan. Kahit nasa sentro na ng atensyon ang PhilHealth dahil sa COVID-19, hindi pa rin mapigilan ang mga galamay ng korapsyon sa ahensya," he said in a statement.
Villanueva said he concurs with the initiative for the Committee of the Whole to look into the allegations of corruption, as co-author to Senate Resolution No. 475.
"For every centavo the PhilHealth loses to corruption, our people’s opportunity to receive treatment likewise decreases. For every centavo lost to corruption, PhilHealth is not able to reimburse hospitals, which leads to substandard service and unpaid workers," he said.
"Each centavo counts, and in the context of the pandemic, every centavo that goes to corruption undermines our response to COVID-19, leaving our frontliners unpaid and depriving patients the health care they deserve."
Keith, in his resignation letter last week, said that the mandatory payment of PhilHealth contributions by overseas Filipino workers was unconstitutional and that it was against his values to make OFWs "pay for the spillages" of the agency.
Despite the allegations, PhilHealth chief executive officer Gen. Ricardo Morales continues to enjoy the trust of President Rodrigo Duterte, Sen. Christopher "Bong" Go said in an online press conference.
"Nabanggit niya sa akin (Duterte) na malaki ang tiwala niya kay Gen. Morales sa kaniyang integridad kaya lang 'yung mga tao sa baba kailangan tingnan mabuti," Go, the President's former aide, said.
(The President mentioned to me that he has huge trust in Gen. Morales' integrity, but officials and staff below him need to be checked thoroughly.)
"Pero 'pag napatunayang mayroong corruption, I am sure heads will definitely roll," said Go, chair of the Senate health committee.
(But if investigations prove that there is corruption, I am sure heads will definitely roll.)
Sotto said Health Secretary Francisco Duque III would likely be included in the Senate inquiry as PhilHealth is also under the Department of Health (DOH).
Duque has been repeatedly criticized by senators, citing his "incompetence" in leading the DOH during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) crisis.
"Damay at damay ang Department of Health diyan, later on," he said.
(The Department of Health will really be implicated in the case, later on.)
Reports of irregularities in PhilHealth come as the Philippines continues to struggle in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic despite having one of the longest lockdowns in the world.
While Sotto guaranteed that the Senate would prioritize measures that would improve the country's ease of doing business, digital landscape, distance learning system and public transport during the global pandemic, the chamber could have passed more bills if "there were no controversies."