Drilon questions PhilHealth's overpriced COVID-19 test kit

Photo courtesy of Manila Bulletin

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon on Thursday suspects that some people in the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) were trying to make money on the COVID-19 test package, which he earlier described as “overpriced”.

In an article published by Inquirer, Drilon pointed out that PhilHealth’s COVID-19 package costs P8,150, is too high, compared to Philippine Red Cross (PRC) test kit costs P3,500.

The possible overpricing could reach P8 billion if the government would test 2 million Filipinos, the senator added.

“There really are shenanigans. Someone planned to earn off it. In fairness to General Morales of PhilHealth, he said no payments had been made,” Drilon said in a radio interview.

Drilon thankfully said that there had been no payments yet and that PhilHealth had not lost money.

He expected PhilHealth President and CEO Ricardo Morales to get to the root of the matter. Morales also said on Wednesday that the rates submitted were under review.

“But it is really clear that the unscrupulous persons in PhilHealth had a plan—I am not saying it is their president—to try to pull something off,” Drilon added.

The former Justice Secretary said in a separate statement, he was not sure if the overpricing incident was due to “corruption or gross negligence,” however, he believes that it was Morales’ duty to find out.

“To disburse so many funds is manifestly and grossly disadvantageous to Filipinos. It is against the law and unconscionable. We cannot let this pass,” the lawmaker said.

“This is not the first time we’ve heard of PhilHealth’s incompetence. Remember the ghost patients and fake cataract surgeries? We cannot discount the possibility of fake COVID-19 tests,” he added.

According to Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, he will refer the claims of overpricing PhilHealth test kits for the new coronavirus to President Rodrigo Duterte’s special assistant, Jesus Melchor Quitain.

However, Roque declined to comment on Drilon’s queries and citing it as a conflict of interest. Spox Roque said he filed charges last year against PhilHealth officials over last year’s fictitious dialysis scam.

Roque said Quitain investigated the irregularity and that the probe led to the firing of some members of the PhilHealth board.

Drilon further explains that an April 8 circular stated that PhilHealth pays the package amount for all COVID-19 services rendered by hospitals and testing laboratories.

Per DOH, The P8,150 for COVID-19 testing includes screening, which costs P509.06; diagnostic workup, P799.69; specimen collection, P947.12; specimen transport, P451.14; and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing, P5,422.91.

And according to experts, some expenses included in the breakdown of COVID19 test kits were unnecessary.

The diagnostic workup costing was questionable because COVID-19 testing did not include blood examination but only a nasal swab.

“The diagnostic workup involves a thorough examination of the blood. Do we submit our blood samples when we are tested? No. We only submit to nasal swabbing,” he said.

Aside from unnecessary expenses, PhilHealth is also shouldering the cost of courier services is “ridiculous,” said Drilon, where the usual practice is for the patient to go to the laboratory to get tested, so there should be no need for a courier service.

Drilon also questioned the need for eight staff members to conduct a single test.

He said the PRC testing cost includes P2,700 for the test kit, P840 for the extraction kit, P200 for staff time, P549 for personal protective equipment, P649 for other supplies, and P494 for overhead cost.

But a test kit could be bought for as low as P750, he said.

“These questionable items are the reason why the package is overinflated, which would adversely affect the health insurance agency’s fund life. The PhilHealth should review it immediately and lower the price tag similar to their agreement with the Philippine Red Cross,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Panfilo Lacson also agreed to his fellow senator, and mentioned that there was indeed a “pattern of overpricing” in the purchases for the Department of Health (DOH) amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Lacson said the pattern was obvious because the private sector was buying the same items as the DOH, though not necessarily the same brand.

Although Lacson said, now was not the time for an investigation into the matter as he did not want the DOH and other government agencies to be distracted from dealing with the crisis.

“But I think there should be a day of reckoning on all this. Seizing an opportunity out of a crisis is a good thing when you do it for the country. For example, when we know other locators or factories are relocating from China to other places in Asia, we should seize that opportunity. But to seize an opportunity for self-aggrandizement out of a crisis as big as the COVID-19 pandemic, I think that’s the height of callousness and greed,” Lacson said over a television interview on Thursday.

The former Police chief also he questioned was the DOH’s submission for the purchase of a branded equipment, which he said was prohibited and wrong.

The DOH had purchased a King Fisher testing equipment at P4 million apiece, while a private sector only spent P1.75 million for the same equipment with the 'Sansure' brand.

The DOH explained that Sansure has a “closed system” that could affect compatibility with other machines.

But Lacson disputed the DOH explanation, he said, “These are technical terms. But it is not true at all that Sansure, which is a brand manufactured in China, is a closed system. That is not true.”

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