PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte has vowed to “finish off” Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) officials involved in irregularities at the agency even if he has no plan to fire its chief.

“I will finish all of you off,” he said in a speech in Filipino on Monday night. “Believe me.”

Top officials of the state insurance company are under investigation by the Senate. The Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) is also conducting a separate probe.

Presidential spokesman Harry L. Roque told a news briefing Mr. Duterte won’t fire PhilHealth President Ricardo C. Morales. “I haven’t heard the President say that he would choose a new PhilHealth chief,” he said in Filipino.

Mr. Duterte last week created a task force headed by the Department of Justice that will investigate PhilHealth, including doing lifestyle checks and audits of its officials and employees.

The President has also ordered the Office of the Special Assistant to the President Undersecretary Jesus Melchor Quitain to conduct a separate probe.

Mr. Morales earlier filed to take a medical leave after he was diagnosed with cancer in February.

The agency allegedly bought overpriced items and gave financial aid to ineligible health facilities.

The PACC last week said it had recommended the filing of charges against three dozen PhilHealth officials, which the Senate may adopt in its committee report.

The Senate committee might recommend that charges be filed by the Office of the Ombudsman and the Department of Justice once it ends its investigation, Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III said on Monday.

PhilHealth officials tried to buy obsolete network switches that were five times the price of newer models last year, according to the resigned aide of the state insurance company’s chief.

The agency nearly bought 15 units of an older model of a Cisco device used to manage computers in a local area network for P420,000 when a newer model costs only P62,000 each, Etrobal Laborte, who resigned as head executive assistant of PhilHealth President Ricardo Morales told an online Senate hearing on Tuesday.

“That item was a bit old,” he told senators investigating corruption at the agency. The price has depreciated over time. It’s already obsolete because it was from 2016.”

Jovita V. Aragona, PhilHealth senior vice-president for Information Management Sector, tried to counter Mr. Laborte’s testimony, saying the former top aide had presented a different product.

Mr. Laborte, a former Marine colonel and Cisco-certified network associate, then presented a document showing that Ms. Aragona had signed papers approving the purchase.

Ms. Aragona insisted that the Cisco products were different, but Senator Panfilo M. Lacson cut her short, warned her not to fool senators.

“Don’t fool the 24 senators,” he said at the hearing in Filipino. “You changed the specifications to justify what you bought.”

Mr. Lacson said the purchase should have been rejected because it was no longer available in the market.

“You’re trying to fool us by claiming that you were buying something else when you have your signature here,” he said.

Mr. Laborte said he had written to Mr. Morales about the discrepancy, telling him that the agency should not buy products based on 2016 prices because these have become cheaper.

“This is a small apparatus that a five-year-old child can carry,” he said in Filipino.“Why should we buy it for almost P400,000? What is this, a car?”

Mr. Laborte also testified that suppliers of several IT equipment had been asked to charge for the training of some IT officials at PhilHealth. He added that the agency should have hired IT staff who already knew how to operate these equipment.

The PhilHealth chief had yet to act on Mr. Laborte’s recommendation to probe the alleged padding of prices at the insurance agency’s IT department.

Mr. Morales earlier said some officials have been trying to discredit the agency’s computerization program because it would be easier to discover anomalies.

“Who will be made liable for the attempted overpricing of equipment” Mr. Lacson asked. “This is not just overpriced. It’s grossly overpriced.”

Meanwhile, senators questioned the legality of a PhilHealth order dated March 20 that provided for the interim reimbursement mechanism, when the Philhealth Board issued its resolution only on March 31.

The mechanism allowed the agency to grant advance payments to health institutions by up to three months during the pandemic, even if only P1 billion had been liquidated.

Mr. Lacson also flagged the month-long delay in the dissemination of the standard operating procedure for the reimbursement mechanism. He said fund releases had reached P9.3 billion even if the manual had not been distributed.

Mr. Morales said the agency had fast-tracked the releases in anticipation of the coronavirus outbreak.

“As of January 2020, we were in a state of anxiety,” he said at Tuesday’s hearing. “We knew COVID was coming, we knew how it hit other countries, we were in a state of panic. We wanted to be preemptive to be able to help prepare our hospitals,” he added.

Senator Franklin M. Drilon doubted his explanation, noting that Health Secretary Francisco T. Duque III had started his COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) response in March.

“Obviously, this is an excuse because your secretary of Health did not do anything until mid-March,” he said.

PhilHealth Vice-President for Operations Augustus de Villa last week quit his job but promised to cooperate with the congressional probe. Mr. De Villa, a retired military officer, said he had briefed Mr. Morales about his resignation.

Former PhilHealth anti-fraud legal officer Thorsson Keith told senators at a hearing the agency’s top officials had pocketed P15 billion through fraudulent programs.

He said the sum came from overpriced equipment the agency had bought, as well as from a program that gave financial aid to health facilities amid a coronavirus pandemic. Mr. Keith called PhilHealth executive committee officers in-house mafia members.

The agency allegedly gave advance payments to health institutions by up to three months during the pandemic, even if only P1 billion had been liquidated.

PhilHealth has denied the allegations. — Charmaine A. Tadalan and Gillian M. Cortez