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The Rundown: Duque and PhilHealth execs to face charges, new PhilHealth chief appointed, US marine’s release blocked, voter registration resumes

Investigation on corruption allegations in the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) took another step forward as the Senate Committee of the Whole recommended last September 1 the filing of criminal charges against officials allegedly involved in fraudulent schemes within the agency. With the top PhilHealth post left vacant amid the controversy, President Rodrigo Duterte has appointed a new Chief Executive Officer (CEO).

As COVID-19 cases totaled 237,365 nationwide on September 6, Metro Manila and several areas will remain under General Community Quarantine (GCQ) until September 30. Voter registration has also resumed for areas under GCQ and Modified GCQ.

Meanwhile, an Olongapo court ordered the release of United States (US) Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton, who was convicted of the murder of transwoman Jennifer Laude in 2014. News of the order sparked criticism from Laude’s family.

Metro Manila to stay under GCQ for September

Duterte announced on August 31 that the National Capital Region (NCR) will remain under GCQ, granting the Metro Manila mayors’ request for a month-long GCQ extension. While quarantine levels used to be updated every 15 days, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez earlier explained that the longer term period is meant to provide the public with a “sense of stability”. 

The prolongation of NCR’s quarantine status is marked by the reopening of non-contact gyms, internet cafes, and grooming services, which were previously closed when Metro Manila was placed under a two-week Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ) last August but were not allowed to continue operations after the stricter lockdown expired.

Moreover, four other localities—the provinces of Bulacan and Batangas, Tacloban City, and Bacolod City—are also under GCQ, while MECQ is imposed on Iligan City due to an observed increase in cases. The rest of the country, on the other hand, is under Modified GCQ.

Ex-NBI chief to PhilHealth CEO

On the same day, Duterte named Dante Gierran, the former Director of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), as PhilHealth’s new president and CEO, replacing Ricardo Morales who previously resigned after revealing he was afflicted with lymphoma.

Gierran, a certified public accountant and lawyer, was previously appointed by Duterte as NBI Director in 2016 and had been in retirement since last February after reaching the mandatory retirement age. 

However, Gierran’s qualifications fell short of his new position. According to Section 14 of Republic Act No. 11223 or the Universal Health Care Act, the President must appoint a Filipino citizen who has at least seven years of experience in public health, management, finance, or health economics, or a combination of any of these fields.

Gierran, who himself admitted that he did not have any public health experience, claimed that he will “restore the trust and confidence of the people in PhilHealth”. The new PhilHealth chief added that he will seek advice from former agency head Morales.

His task for the next two years, according to Duterte, is to fight corruption and to “imprison” corrupt officials within the government-run agency. Duterte also instructed Gierran to remove all PhilHealth regional vice presidents as part of reorganization efforts.

Charges against Duque, other PhilHealth executives

After extensive hearings in late August, Senate President Vicente Sotto III reported the findings of the Senate’s Committee of the Whole on “rampant” corruption within the health insurance corporation. In particular, the committee found “suspicious” payments and “improper and illegal” implementation of the Interim Reimbursement Mechanism (IRM)—funds intended to support hospital expenses for their COVID-19 response. 

Sotto pinned the blame on Morales and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, adding that the two should be charged for “grave abuse of discretion or gross negligence” in releasing billions of pesos in IRM funds “without valid criteria for distribution”.

Apart from Duque and Morales, senators also recommended the prosecution of PhilHealth Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Arnel De Jesus; Senior Vice President (SVP) for PhilHealth’s fund management sector Renato Limsiaco Jr.; SVP for the health finance policy sector Israel Francis Pargas; resigned SVP for the legal sector Rodolfo del Rosario Jr.; SVP for the information management sector Jovita Argona; and acting Senior Manager for PhilHealth’s Information Technology and Management Department  Calixto Gabuya Jr.

Charges recommended by the Senate include malversation of public funds or property, illegal use of public funds or property, violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, and violation of the National Internal Revenue Code. Administrative charges were also pushed against PhilHealth officials and employees.

Voter registration resumes in GCQ, MGCQ areas

Voter registration resumed in GCQ and MGCQ areas last September 1.

Commission on Elections (Comelec) spokesperson James Jimenez encouraged registrants to download application forms from the Comelec website. These documents can be submitted from Tuesdays to Saturdays, including holidays, from 8 am to 3 pm at local Comelec offices. There will be no satellite voter registration centers.

Signing of application forms is to be done before the Election Officer at the Comelec office, and applicants are advised to bring their own pens. A “No Face Mask and Face Shield, No Entry” policy is also in place as a health measure.

Convicted marine’s release blocked

The Olongapo City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 74 has ordered the release of Pemberton last September 2. Despite being handed a maximum penalty of 10 years for the killing of Laude, the marine served just over five years and eight months of his sentence.

The release order was supposedly made possible through the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) Law, which allows Persons Deprived of Liberty to have a reduction in their prison terms for every month of detention as a reward for “good conduct and exemplary behavior”. This, in effect, cut Pemberton’s sentence by four years, making him eligible for release, according to Presiding Judge Roline Ginez-Jabalde of the Olongapo RTC.

The victim’s family filed for a motion for reconsideration on the same day, insisting that Pemberton cannot walk free without evidence to prove his eligibility for GCTA. Laude’s camp further pressed that the convicted marine was not even detained in the New Bilibid Prison, and instead served his sentence “solo and comfortably” in Camp Aguinaldo, in compliance with the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US. 

This “distinction” also made him ineligible for the GCTA, argued Atty. Romel Bagares, one of the Laude family’s lawyers. As of press time, the Department of Justice has yet to respond to Bagares’ comment.

Meanwhile, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, who previously served as the Laude family’s lawyer, said in a press briefing last September 3 that the decision to grant GCTA was an “executive function” and described the court’s move as “judicial overreach”. The Bureau of Corrections, according to Roque, has ordered the halt of Pemberton’s release order.

Although the spokesperson admitted that Duterte had no personal thoughts on the matter yet, he remarked that the President’s move to scrap the VFA will give justice to Laude. “Under the VFA, if an American [soldier] murders a Filipino like an animal, they only need to serve five years in prisonthat is unacceptable,” Roque said in Filipino. Duterte had previously ordered government officials to scrap the VFA last February, but suspended the move last June due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

By Jan Emmanuel Alonzo

By Jezah Mae Bagsit

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