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New PhilHealth Chief another link in the chain of crony appointees | CMFR

New PhilHealth Chief another link in the chain of crony appointees

Screengrab from ABS-CBN News’ YouTube account.

IN THE midst of the worst health crisis to hit the country and a corruption scandal hounding the PhilHealth medical insurance system, President Rodrigo Duterte appointed someone without any background in public health to head the agency.

As the public gained more information about the corruption and fraud in the management of PhilHealth, the president “asked” retired Brig. Gen. Ricardo Morales to step down as its CEO and president on August 27. Days later, on August 31, the president appointed former NBI Director Dante Gierran to take Morales’ place.

Gieran’s appointment was immediately met with protest. Critics, including members of PhilHealth’s workers’ union, voiced their disapproval of Gierran’s appointment, citing  the Universal Healthcare Law’s requirement of at least 7 years’ experience in  public health and health economics for the head of  PhilHealth.

In a press briefing on August 28, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque also stressed the need for Morales’ successor to have “a background in community health and public health.” “PhilHealth is not just an insurance company, it implements universal health care,” Roque said. On September 1, after the president had made his choice, Roque defended Gierran’s appointment, saying that the latter was qualified and the “best choice” to head PhilHealth.

Media reports quickly called attention to Gierran’s lack of the necessary qualifications while other news organizations touched on his ties with the president. The more outstanding reports published profiles on Gierran, noting his stint as NBI’s Regional Director in Duterte’s Davao City bailiwick.

But most of the media missed the obvious back story, the pattern of cronyism in Duterte’s appointments. Gierran joins the long list of law enforcement/military officers hand-picked by the president to take over civilian roles in different agencies. He is also among the bureaucrats plucked from Davao City’s local government agencies now occupying positions in the national government.

CMFR monitored reports from the three major Manila broadsheets (Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star); four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, CNN Philippines’ News Night, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and TV5’s One Balita); as well as selected news websites from August 31 to September 4, 2020.

Lack of experience

An interview with ANC’s Headstart on the day following his appointment may have prompted more critical coverage on Gierran, who candidly told Karen Davila, “I’m very scared, because I don’t know the operations of PhilHealth. I knew the operations of NBI. But PhilHealth, wala… I don’t have experience with public health.”

Citing health experts, media reported the growing criticism against Gierran’s appointment. In a report by online news site Bulatlat, Community doctor and CURE Covid Spokesperson Julie Caguiat pointed out that the president is still treating the pandemic “as a peace and order problem, appointing law enforcers in positions that are better suited for health professionals and experts.”

Ties with Duterte

An online report by CNN Philippines noted that Gierran was the first NBI Director to be appointed by the newly elected president in 2016.

While most reports did mention Duterte’s ties to PhilHealth’s new top honcho, some reports flagged black marks in Gierran’s track record.

Rappler and GMA News Online recalled that in 2016, whistleblower Edgar Matobato, a confessed former member of the “Davao Death Squad,” testified that Gierran was involved in the murder of a man who was fed to crocodiles in 2007. Rappler also added that under Gierran’s leadership, the NBI flip-flopped on the landmark cyber libel complaint against Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr.

Pattern of cronyism

It was in the op-ed sections where CMFR found discussions on the pattern of Duterte’s appointments.

The Inquirer’s editorial on September 4 pointed out the president’s dependence on officials with military backgrounds and with very specialized skill sets. So far, Duterte has appointed 46 former military and police officers to key government posts, including Cabinet-level positions, among them Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, Social Welfare Secretary Rolando Bautista and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año.

Meanwhile, a VERA Files commentary posted on August 15 looked into Duterte’s ties with another beleaguered health official–DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III, who has successfully dodged several controversies and calls for resignation, in part because of his family’s closeness to the president.

For all his tough talk against corruption, the president makes very little effort to mask the pattern of cronyism in his administration.

Media’s task is to keep Duterte’s appointees under close watch. Gierran himself has admitted his lack of experience and qualifications in the areas of expertise required by the work in PhilHealth. Reporters should focus on how the PhilHealth chief plans to address the financial and management issues in the agency and whether his background fits the requirements of the new job. Media should be ready to follow up on the findings of Congressional hearings and provide information on how the president’s appointee is doing. The public should know how well they are served by the president’s favored friends as their taxes pay for the salaries and benefits of these appointees. The president’s privileged circle of appointees must prove their worth if they are to stay in the positions they gained only through their close connections to the man in power.