Pork is bad for health

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Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

Since investigating the rapidly ballooning “pork barrel” scandal has suddenly become the favorite pastime of numerous institutional entities within the various branches of the Philippine government, one of those august bodies might consider calling some officials of the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) to “invite them for questioning” about a number of matters that indicate a certain, shall we say, casual regard for process and accountability in the agency since the abrupt departure of PhilHealth’s energetic former president Dr. Eduardo Banzon in January.

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The investigators might want to by inquiring why, given the anxiety of the Aquino administration to be able to present “universal health coverage” through PhilHealth as a legitimate achievement, the government insurance provider has only managed to enroll roughly a third of the members sponsored by Congressmen through their Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) allocations since the term of former PhilHealth president Reynaldo Aquino (who left the position in early 2012). In the second district of Marikina represented by Romero “Miro” Quimbo, for example, Representative Quimbo has directed funds from his PDAF allotment to enroll a total of 5,000 constituents in PhilHealth, with the most recent tranche of P1 million, sufficient to cover 3,500 members, being released in July of last year, at least according to the online information made available by the Department of Management and Budget. To date, however, only about 1,300 of the PhilHealth recipients sponsored by Quimbo have actually been enrolled. A spot check of other districts around the country reveals a similar pattern.

What is disturbing about it is that unlike the “pork barrel” thievery involving the comfortably detained Janet Lim-Napoles, wherein PDAF funds were coursed through spurious non-governmental organizations, allotments earmarked for PhilHealth or similar purposes (such as assistance to patients at the Lung Center of the Philippines or the National Kidney and Transplant Institute) are distributed through the Department of Finance (DOF). The last time I checked, the DOF was not actually on the list of Napoles’ alleged money-laundering tools, which suggests that Napoles might not be the unique demon in all this the Aquino administration is moving Heaven and Earth to convince the public she is.

The lax pace of enrollment of new PhilHealth members might have something to do with the odd public-private partnership (PPP) arrangement for the provision of new ID cards for PhilHealth members. The original deal involved Allcard Inc. and two other companies. For a price to new PhilHealth members of P80 per card, Allcard would provide the cards, while the two other companies (one was E-Soluzione Inc., the other was not identified) handled marketing activities; Allcard would collect P50 for producing each card, while its marketing partners would share the P30 balance. The program was part of PhilHealth’s aggressive enrollment drive in line with the government’s “universal health care” objective, and thus the intention was that the PPP partners would be selling the cards to first-time PhilHealth members. When it was discovered by Banzon’s office, however, that most of the cards were being sold at an inflated cost of P100 to P130 each to existing PhilHealth members, he immediately suspended the PPP arrangement pending an investigation.

Although it is not known, and never will be, since Banzon himself is too dignified to lay blame—a rare trait in this government that has been lost with his departure—whether his suspension of the corrupted card-provision contract had anything to do with his resignation from an agency that had grown politically hostile to him, the story gives a potential hint as to why the PhilHealth job is considered such a prize by some. Multiply the P20 to P50 the price of the new PhilHealth cards was allegedly inflated by the number of PhilHealth members—claimed to be somewhere between 37 and 79 million people, although no one, not even PhilHealth, really seems to be sure—and one discovers a breathtaking amount of potential “imaginative income.”

To be fair, the original and evidently questionable card-provision arrangement has not been restarted. Instead, PhilHealth has launched a new program with Allcard, although apparently without considering or soliciting bids from other providers, for cards at P90 each, or P50 for PhilHealth employees, which will replace all existing PhilHealth member ID cards. Coincidentally, Allcard is rumored to have as one of its incorporators a relative of Nadine Navarro, a former PhilHealth line employee who was elevated to the post of “OIC-senior manager” of the International and Local Engagement Department of PhilHealth’s Corporate Affairs Group, according to a July 16 staff reorganization memo signed by new PhilHealth President and Chief Executive Officer Alexander A. Padilla.

There is growing concern that PhilHealth, which had markedly improved under Banzon, will start to slip into some undesirable “old ways” under Padilla, who was apparently chosen for the top spot at PhilHealth by the PhilHealth board and President Benigno Aquino 3rd based on the efficiency with which he supervised a total collapse of talks between the government and the National Democratic Front. Rumors are now swirling that an old scandal—massive bill-padding in cataract operations to indigent and low-income patients, which was first exposed as long ago as 2007—has suddenly come back to life, after a series of orders signed by Padilla and interim PhilHealth Director Enrique Ona (the Department of Health Secretary filled in as the PhilHealth officer-in-charge-or OIC between January and June this year) first deferred and then largely undid stricter rules for cataract surgery authorizations issued by Banzon in December. Since the smoke that may indicate a fire with that particular issue does not have the aroma of pork, however, it will have to be on the menu another time. For now, it seems, the only one who has anything to be happy about as far as PhilHealth is concerned is Banzon; in an awesome put-down to the contrived criticism which forced him from his post, he has recently been named the Eastern Mediterranean Regional Advisor for Health Economics and Financing for the World Health Organization, taking his talents to an extremely troubled part of the world where they can be put to good use.

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