Senate opens 2nd regular session with spotlight on COVID-19-related probes

Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 27 2020 11:14 AM | Updated as of Jul 27 2020 01:19 PM

MANILA - The Senate on Monday opened the 18th Congress' second regular session with at least a dozen resolutions seeking to investigate alleged irregularities in the government's fight against the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

The Senate resumed session days after a Philippine Health Insurance Corp (PhilHealth) official resigned over alleged "widespread corruption" in the state-run insurance agency mandated to shoulder Filipinos' COVID-19 testing fees and other health bills.

"Through our oversight powers, we will make sure that the [COVID-19] programs laid out is followed to the letter and that transparency in the handling of funds is observed," Sotto said in the session's opening, where 17 senators were physically present. 

Six other senators joined the proceedings in their homes or offices as the Senate continues to allow lawmakers to participate in the session through videoconferencing to limit their possible exposure to COVID-19. Sen. Leila de Lima was not allowed to join the proceedings while in detention. 

"The world is on fire. The more our nation reflects this reality, the more earnest government must be in protecting each and everyone in our community," Sotto said.

An investigation into PhilHealth's allegedly questionable transactions amounting to some P1 billion will be "one of the Senate's top agenda" after President Rodrigo Duterte's State of the Nation Address, Sen. Panfilo Lacson earlier said.

"Corruption in PhilHealth seems to have become the rule rather than the exception, and the threat posed by COVID-19 seems to have emboldened rather than deterred it," he said in a statement.

"As long as the responsible officials are not made accountable for their misdeeds, PhilHealth will continue to bleed dry," he said.

As of July 26, there were at least 12 other Senate resolutions calling for an investigation into the following COVID-19-related issues:

- Alleged COVID-19-related deaths of high-profile drug lords in Bilibid
- Alleged corruption in PhilHealth offices
- Alleged unreleased PhilHealth insurance claims
- Allegedly overpriced COVID-19 testing kits and machines
- Allegedly overpriced personal protective equipment for health workers
- "Floating" labor status of call center workers during COVID-19 crisis
- Government program for returning overseas Filipino workers
- Government spending, use of special powers under Bayanihan Act
- Illegal COVID-19 clinics for Chinese patients
- Sexual exploitation of children during COVID-19 crisis
- Status of COVID-19 mass testing in the Philippines
- Status of COVID-19 contact tracing in the Philippines

BAYANIHAN TO RECOVER AS ONE PASSAGE

The Senate is expected to pass the Bayanihan to Recover as One bill (Bayanihan 2) on Tuesday, before proceeding to tackle the 2021 budget in August.

The new Bayanihan bill will will allow the President to continuously realign funds for COVID-19 programs, but will repeal the executive's power to take over hospitals, and to arrest or penalize individuals who violate quarantine policies.

"We are all challenged to take part in building a new world. Binabago at patuloy na magbabago ang ating buhay dahil sa pandemiyang ito," Sotto.

"Our survival of this crisis depends on how strong we fight this crisis together," he said.

The Senate failed to pass the Bayanihan 2 on final reading before it adjourned for a break in June after Malacañang chose not to certify the measure as urgent, as the government may not have enough funds for the cash-aid programs guaranteed under the bill.

Last week, Duterte certified the Bayanihan 2 bill as urgent, with his spokesperson saying that it is a "strong weapon that we will use to recover from COVID-19."

The Senate will also prioritize passing measures that will improve the country's ease of doing business, digital landscape, distance learning system, public transport, and the arts, Sotto said.