The President’s trusted men

President Rodrigo Duterte has come under heavy criticism for keeping Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) President and Chief Executive Officer Ricardo Morales despite serious doubts on their competence amid the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic.

The president’s refusal to heed calls for their dismissal runs counter to his previous statements that he abhors corruption.

While visiting Cambodia in December 2016, Duterte said he would not tolerate corruption in the government even if it involved his own friends, and that superiors of those involved may also have to go. “Corruption, it will stop. I will not forgive anyone, not even my friends. It will stop,” he told an audience of Filipinos in the Cambodian capital.

“If something happens and it’s under you, I am sorry, maybe even you would have to resign because that is what I had promised,” he added.

Seven months later in his state of the nation address in July 2017, he declared: “I will never tolerate corruption in my administration. Not even a whiff of it.”

This time though, the president has repeatedly turned down suggestions that he fire Duque who has been perceived to have committed one blunder after another in addressing the Covid pandemic, including bragging about succeeding in the fight against Covid during the initial weeks and falsely claiming in May that the Philippines was already on the second wave or surge of Covid cases, for which he later apologized for causing confusion over it.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson had accused Duque of conflict of interest, claiming that the companies of the health secretary’s siblings, Doctors’ Pharmaceutical (DPI) and Educational and Medical Development Corporation (EMDC), have contracts with government agencies. Duque had denied the accusation, saying those companies have long been contracting with government since 1946.

He also came under fire over the handling of the Covid response for some questionable acquisitions of the Department of Health that were allegedly overpriced. Some senators have also questioned the agency’s decision to buy more expensive testing kits and machines.

Amid the allegations of corruption and incompetence thrown at Duque, the president has repeatedly stood behind him, saying he is not corrupt and that he has been working hard to contain the spread of Covid-19.

In the case of Morales, Duterte said he “wants to see the evidence” first in the alleged P15-billion corruption scandal at PhilHealth before considering to fire him.

The 67-year-old Morales has feigned innocence to allegations of massive and systematic corruption at PhilHealth, an agency he has been serving since July 2019. He even justified highly questionable procurement contracts the agency had entered into, such as the computer system for a new information technology program to verify if the more than 5,000 members over 130 years old are still alive or not.

To this, Morales said: “Hindi ho natin pwedeng matanggal ito kasi wala ho kaming dokumentong nagsasabi na namatay na itong mga taong ito.”

His discovery that this exists in the PhilHealth database should have shocked him, given that the oldest living person in the world, according to the Guinness World Record, is a Japanese woman who is 117 years old. Kane Tanaka, born on Jan. 2, 1903, lives in Fukuoka, Japan. The oldest person who has ever existed was a French woman who was 122 years old when she died in 1997.

Having even just one Filipino who is 130 years old would be startling enough for Morales to dig deeper into the questionable database without having to buy a multi-billion peso computer system to track him down. What more if the PhilHealth database shows 5, 000 of them? Does the PhilHealth database show any detail that would prove that even just one of those ever existed?

It is frustrating that Morales failed to use his military discipline in managing the corruption-ridden agency. He was known as a reformist, having been an active member of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM).

Duterte first tapped Morales, who hails from Davao and had served as an aide de camp for former first lady Imelda Marcos early in his military career, as vice chairman of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) Board of Trustees in June 2019 when the water regulatory agency was rocked by corruption controversies.

Morales was embroiled in the PhilHealth corruption scandal following the resignation of Anti-Fraud Legal Officer Thorrsson Montes Keith. Reports said Morales ordered Keith to, among others, “massage” the issue of supposedly overpriced COVID-19 test kits.

According to Keith, a “mafia” in PhilHealth managed to steal roughly P15 billion from the state insurer through several fraudulent schemes, including cash advances, use of the interim reimbursement mechanism, and continuous procurement of IT equipment the agency already has. He said everyone in the agency’s executive committee was part of the “mafia” that pockets public funds.

Morales has taken a leave from work, showing a medical certificate from his doctor who attested that he was under chemotherapy treatment for lymphoma. Yet, the President is still keeping him. Some have asked if his treatment costs are shouldered by PhilHealth, which expects to operate at a P90 billion loss this year due largely to the Covid-19 pandemic.

If we are to believe the surveys, President Duterte has been enjoying very high trust rating. But if he keeps on harboring people who squander not only public money but also people’s faith and confidence in the government institution, he may be giving the wrong signals that it’s all right to be corrupt and incompetent for as long as you enjoy the president’s trust.

The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.

This column also appeared in the Manila Times.