PHILIPPINE HEALTH Insurance Corp. officials on Tuesday admitted lying about the agency’s anomalous IT procurement program to avoid Senate detention for contempt.

During a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Senator Panfilo M. Lacson moved to cite PhilHealth Senior Vice-President Jovita V. Aragona and Acting Senior Manager Calixto I. Gabuya, Jr. for lying under oath.

He withdrew the motion after the officials admitted that they lied at the first hearing, where lawmakers found that PhilHealth officials tried to buy obsolete network switches that were five times the price of newer models last year.

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 said.

“Do you admit that you did not tell us the whole truth before?” Mr. Lacson asked. Both Ms. Aragona and Mr. Gabuya answered yes.

At the same hearing, a dialysis center was allegedly used to make about P811 million in claims from PhilHealth to cover “impossible” dialysis sessions.

Mr. Lacson again questioned the advance payment made to health facilities under the so-called interim reimbursement mechanism. 

Health Secretary Francisco T. Duque III, who attended the hearing for the first time on Tuesday, said the program was not exclusive to coronavirus facilities. He denied that some hospitals had been favored by the scheme. Mr. Duque is the PhilHealth chairman.

Senator Ralph G. Recto questioned the request to allocate P10 billion under a bill seeking to give President Rodrigo R. Duterte special powers in the battle against the pandemic for coronavirus testing. 

PhilHealth has about P200 billion in financial assets, Mr. Recto said, citing Deputy Treasurer Sharon P. Almanza.

“There seems to be a request from the palace that we use taxpayers money to give PhilHealth P10 billion to pay for testing,” Mr. Recto said. “Why should we give it P10 billion if it has P200 billion?” he said at the hearing in Filipino.

Mr. Duterte earlier vowed to “finish off” PhilHealth officials involved in irregularities at the agency even if he had no plan to fire its chief.

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.

Mr. Duterte has also 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.

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

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

PhilHealth has denied the allegations. — Charmaine A. Tadalan