The PhilHealth Massacre

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Jose M. Montelibano

How long as this been going on – this plunder at Philhealth? I prefer to call it a massacre, using as my basis the reports that came out in the news pointing to losses of 154 billion pesos due to wrongdoing. Reports say this amount was computed from 2013 to 2018. It can be more, in other words, either by going back more years or by discovering more anomalies within the same period.

I have refrained from focusing on controversies for several years. It may be because I had done so several times over the last 18 years of writing weekly yet seeing wrongdoing grow nonetheless. It seemed to me that screaming controversies and finger-pointing have their role in news and opinion writing. When people get to know how they and their tax money are being victimized by public officials and government employees, their loud and active objections can be effective in eliciting investigations and the filing of cases. Or so many of us thought.

It does not seem so, though. If all this free-wheeling reporting and opinion-giving has not effectively arrested the climb of corruption, including President Duterte’s public statements about stopping it and cleaning government bureaucracy, then I thought we needed more options on the table. Corruption will not stop. Human weakness cannot be stopped, not in ancient times, not in the thousands of years of recorded human history, not today, and not tomorrow. The challenge is to keep it as contained as possible. The greater challenge is to punish it quickly and harshly – without exception.

Without exception, though, is like asking for the moon to replace the sun. In a kind of governance that had forever been steeped in elitism, from the datus of yesteryears, from the colonizers who felt the owned the Philippines and the Filipinos, from the local warlords and national economic barons of the more recent past, to today and wherever it is going tomorrow, applying the law quickly and without exception appears to be as impossible as ever. Furthermore, the traditional penchant of citizens expecting and hoping for good governance to simple descend from the heavens to our earth has kept people from understanding that they, first and foremost, are the most powerful force that can go against corruption and abuse in government. Our people have been kept from discovering and from developing their awareness and capacity for action because reformists would rather believe that leaders are the more important.

In deep contrast, therefore, to my old reformist belief that, indeed, good governance will make everything else that is bad simply irrelevant. That belief had been cemented with outstanding examples of great leaders from the olden times to today. With great leaders as models in bringing their people and nations to higher levels of productivity, health, wealth and happiness, it was an easy sell. Not bad, actually, except that our focus on leaders blocked our view of the millions and billions of ordinary people who make leaders great or who make leaders fall.

Shifting my priority to making people more aware of the reality that their fate is in their own hands, no matter how poor or weak they think they are, I chose not to center on controversies and bad news. Instead, from my writing to my work on the ground connected to the poor and the youth, I sought instead to share lessons learned and provoking them to think of possibilities. I also understood the contradictions facing our people, especially the kind created by correct teachings and bad role modeling. I speak of all leadership teaching or mouthing the right things yet behaving in ways that contradict all they teach. Leadership has yet to learn that actions are better teachers than lectures.

While bad leaders or governance continue to rape and plunder our dignity and resources, it makes it all the more difficult to make people see and accept that they, and not the thieves in public office and the bureaucracy, are the final arbiter of how their destiny will play out. All the more now it will seem, because of the massacre of Philhealth resources, that good governance has the way to go. It might happen, but after 70 years of trying to push good governance, wrongdoing is not fazed by it.

The Philhealth massacre is especially painful. From time immemorial, ever since the advent of a national government hundreds of years ago under Spanish rules, the poor never had a program giving them the health services they needed. In the ’90s, I worked with a small group assisting the Traditional Medicine Unit of the DOH under then-Secretary Flavier. We were trying to bridge rural doctors and health workers to traditional healers and herbologists because, at that time, almost 30% of the population would never get to see a doctor or buy medicines from a pharmacy. 30 years later, there is already Philhealth that is capable of helping so tens of millions more compared to before. Then, to see the resources of Philhealth stolen by corrupt Philhealth officials and employees in connivance with dirty health providers from the private sector makes me sick in the stomach.

I hope they are quickly charged, convicted, and spend the rest of their lives in prison. The plunder of Philhealth resources is not just a criminal act, it can be an act of mass murder if poor citizens cannot get medical assistance from a depleted Philhealth budget. I cry for our poor who will be consequently deprived. Before, there were simply no funds for them. Now that there are funds, a scandalous amount goes to corruption faster than to the poor.

No shortcuts, really. Responsible and empowered citizens can force good governance. That demands a lot from us, our understanding and accepting our individual responsibilities and accountabilities, participating and contributing our share.

Or, pray for a miracle, pray for that political Messiah. We have long been doing that anyway.

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