ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Duterte Eyes Former Investigation Chief to Lead Embattled Health Insurance Agency

Dante Gierran has been nominated to lead PhilHealth, under fire for numerous corruption allegations, despite having no experience in the public health sector.

Nick Aspinwall
Duterte Eyes Former Investigation Chief to Lead Embattled Health Insurance Agency
Credit: Flickr/ ken wilson lee

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte nominated Dante Gierran, former head of the National Bureau of Investigation, to lead the country’s embattled Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) as it copes with deepening corruption scandals including nearly $300 million in alleged improperly released funds.

Gierran was tabbed by Duterte after Ricardo Morales, a retired general, resigned as PhilHealth chief on August 26 due to corruption allegations in the national health insurance agency. Duterte had refused to fire Morales for months despite calls for him to do so. Morales had been hired to clean up corruption in the agency in July 2019.

Morales resigned on the same day the Senate recommended the firing of all regional PhilHealth directors due to their involvement in fraud within the agency. A task force had found “centers of fraud” within PhilHealth and recommended structural reforms. Investigators allege around 14 billion Philippine pesos ($288 million) have been improperly released.

The probe is focused on PhilHealth’s IT system, its legal sector, a reimbursement mechanism, and financial management within the agency, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said last week.

Morales had been one of many former military generals to head key government posts. The prevalence of ex-military officials in government has been criticized during the coronavirus pandemic, as the country’s response has focused on strict lockdowns and arrests of quarantine violators. Meanwhile, the Philippines’ case count surged past Indonesia to become the highest in Southeast Asia.

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Gierran, Duterte’s nominee, still has to be elected by the PhilHealth board before leading the agency. Philippine law states that the board cannot recommend a president and CEO unless they have at least seven years of experience in “public health, management, finance, and health economics, or a combination of any of these expertise.”

Duterte appointed Gierran to head the investigation bureau in 2016. He had previously held the same post for three years in Davao City, where Duterte served as mayor, and served for a total of 27 years in the agency.

Edgar Matobato, a former member of the notorious Davao Death Squad (DDS), said in 2016 that Gierran had been involved in the 2007 killing a man whom, Matobato claimed, was fed to crocodiles. Gierran denied the allegations.

Upon nominating Gierran to lead PhilHealth, Duterte asked Gierran to devote the next two years to “fight against corruption.”

“Find people we can send to jail,” the president said, stressing the job would be tough but that Gierran was “a good soldier.”

In a Thursday press briefing, Gierran said he would try his best to end corruption in PhilHealth in two years, adding that he has the support of former colleagues at the investigation bureau, which would assist in probes to end fraud in the health agency.

On Wednesday, a House panel said it was “inclined” to recommend that Duterte be granted emergency powers to reform PhilHealth. Francisco Duque III, the health secretary, backed this proposal.

Mike Defensor, chair of the House committee on public accounts, later told reporters these powers would allow Duterte to reorganize the agency and hire new personnel. “It will be limited like all emergency powers,” he said.

Duque has himself faced pressure to resign. On Tuesday, senators recommended the filing of criminal charges against both Duque and Morales, along with several other top PhilHealth officials, due to the corruption allegations.

PhilHealth has seen its growing corruption scandal spiral into the public eye as the country continues to cope with COVID-19 outbreaks in several provinces. Duterte has said the Philippines will order a Russian coronavirus vaccine, which the Russian government said last month had already received approval despite not going through large-scale trials.