• News updates from the twilight zone

    Ben D. Kritz

    Ben D. Kritz

    BELIEVE it or not, a certain amount of “spin” being offered by the spokespeople of the Office of the President is not only to be expected, but probably even acceptable in moderation. Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr., however, has sailed right past “speaking in positive and encouraging terms” to “saying things that are just plain weird.”

    An excellent example is Coloma’s recent dismissal of concerns that too many skilled personnel are leaving the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa). Three more agency technicians departed for greener pastures in Qatar last week, bringing the number of resignations over the past 10 years to at least 28.

    But where most of the public see an alarming situation—particularly when it is reported, as it almost always is, with an acknowledgement that salary increases, overdue bonuses, and key departmental and technical upgrades continue to be unfunded—Sonny Coloma sees an achievement. “It [the exodus of PAGASA technicians and administrators]shows that our weathermen have good training and preparation, that is why they get a lot of opportunities,” Coloma remarked in a radio interview.

    The country—as in this country, the one which has seen more than 10,000 people killed according to official statistics (and probably half again that many in reality) due to the weather in the past three years —would probably appreciate it if the official weather bureau was not characterized as some sort of minor-league training camp. That’s not only strangely insulting to the Filipino people, who now understand that retaining the best people is not a priority for their government, but a serious affront to a Pagasa staff who already feel neglected.

    In essence, Coloma has just informed them that a legitimate career aspiration for them is to “qualify for a better job elsewhere.”

    C’mon Sonny, get it together, will you? People haven’t found the Baghdad Bob routine funny for at least ten years.

    * * *

    The favorite destination of jilted Filipino weather forecasters was the source of another strange and disturbing piece of news this week as well: The conviction last month by a Qatari court of three Filipinos on spying charges stemming from an investigation that began back in 2009.

    The government of Qatar had accused the three men of passing confidential military and industrial information to the Philippine government; one man, a worker at a state-owned firm and identified as the ringleader of the spy operation, was sentenced to death while the other two, who had been mechanics for the Qatari Air Force, were handed life sentences.

    The Department of Foreign Affairs and the Defense Department of course denied that any spying was taking place, and one tends to believe them in this case. For one thing, the suggestion that the Philippines has an active intelligence agency induces giggles in most people here, and such resources as the country does have for this kind of activity are not likely to be pointlessly wasted on non-threatening countries like far-off Qatar.

    There may, however, be something else behind this bizarre turn of events. Back in April 2012, the Emir of Qatar made what was supposed to be a two-day state visit to the Philippines, but hastily departed after just four hours. The reason was not “an urgent meeting in Doha” but rather the outright refusal by the ever-undiplomatic President Aquino to consider the Qatari request to add more flights to Manila by Qatar Airways.

    A follow-up to the long-standing request by the Qataris was apparently made last month and met with a lukewarm deferral from the Civil Aviation Board; about a week after that, the three Filipino workers were convicted of espionage.

    Coincidence? Maybe. The three OFWs are not the first foreigners rounded up for posing real or imagined threats to Qatar’s security, and even though they all did work in somewhat sensitive jobs, the fact that all three were described as pastors in a born-again Christian church in Muslim-ruled Qatar raises some suspicion. Enough suspicion, in fact, that Vice President Jejomar Binay, the Administration’s point man on OFW concerns, ought to seriously inquire if “13 additional weekly flights during off-peak weekday hours” is actually the price of Qatari clemency.

    And while he’s doing that, President B.S. Aquino 3rd should be thinking long and hard about whether or not the protection he imagines he’s providing quality-challenged Cebu Pacific and the perpetually unprofitable Philippine Airlines by keeping the Qataris away is worth three Filipino lives.

    * * *

    Finally, as further evidence that the government bureaucracy thinks differently and speaks a language that the rest of us can never hope to understand, PhilHealth officials earlier this week dismissed the allegations of the Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines (PHAPi) that the government health insurance provider owed private hospitals more than P600 million for more than 37,000 overdue claims, and was taking up to six months to process reimbursements for medical bills.

    The problem has gotten so out of hand, in fact, that many private hospitals are reportedly now refusing to accept PhilHealth cards from patients, completely undermining the Aquino Administration’s push to privatize the country’s entire health system.

    PhilHealth President and CEO Alex Padilla attributed the “delay” to problems in getting the agency’s new data and payment management system fully connected and working normally, an explanation that, while it perhaps does not inspire confidence in PhilHealth’s administrative capabilities, at least makes some kind of sense. That was trumped, however, by the bizarre reasoning offered by Dr. Jennifer Raca, PhilHealth’s Benefits Development and Research OIC, who said that the dispute was the result of “miscommunication” between PhilHealth and the hospitals about “the definition of backlog.”

    Dr. Raca expanded on that with a rambling explanation of 60-day processing times and returned or rejected claims, none of which addressed the specific complaints raised by PHAPi in any way, but did sound very much like “the private hospitals need to lower their expectations.”

    At any rate, it does make for an interesting experiment to try: The next time you are presented an invoice, a utility bill, or a friendly reminder that your mortgage payment is due, patiently explain that you are not paying the bill because you have a different “definition of backlog.” Then let us know how that works out.



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    1. I have something to say about negotiation and agreement on number of flights among national airlines of two countries. It is a matter of agreement to allocate frequencies of flights to a route like between Qatar and Manila between Qatari airlines and our airlines considering the volume of traffic on the route. If the statistics show an “x” amount of traffic it may be determined that “y” amount of flight frequencies will suffice to serve it so the next question now is which airline/s get what number of these flights. Qatar wants more frequencies but our government will not give it purportedly to protect the interests of our own airlines which is a noble objective. However, realistically speaking the traffic on the route is concedely mostly OFW traffic from us so that in terms of real need we need them more than they need us. We clamp on them they will clamp on us and it needs no genious to know we lose in the shuffle.