Social Security commissioner opens US branch, comments on his brother and Health secretary’s situation

Photo: Social Security Commissioner Gonzalo Duque

Story and photo by Harvey Barkin | FilAm Star EIC

MILPITAS – Social Security Commissioner Gonzalo Duque told Filipino-American media last July 5 about his official task to open an SS branch at the New York Consulate, the plan to automate the agency, the new laws specifically for OFWs and to comment on his brother, Health Sec. Francisco Duque III’s situation.

After New York, he visited siblings and friends in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Georgia. Then he made a stop in the Bay Area and was a guest at former Mayor Jose Esteves’ home in this city where he met the media. Jose Esteves hosted the meet with the media.

Gonzalo is in the US to reach out to alumni and alumnae of Lyceum Northwestern University on the occasion of their fiftieth anniversary as an autonomous body. His funding for the trip is from the University and authorized by the Office of the Secretary of Finance.

He is also in the States to spread the news about the new law now including coverage for OFWs and the consequent opening of more Social Security branches like the one that recently opened in New York and soon in LA. These offices will offer advisory and claim settlement services.

There are Social Security service offices in Calgary, Toronto (both in Canada), Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong and elsewhere where the Filipino population is dense.

He said under the new law effective this year, a one percent increase every year will be required for SS contributions in the next five years.

Second, benefits will also be increased. Two years ago, the first PHP1,000 benefit was released to members. But the decision was not based on actuarial studies and Gonzalo said this was more because of politics. It “decreased our fund life” so the next windfall is still undetermined.

But Duque said, “In case of decreased fund life, we don’t have to worry because we have a sovereign guarantee. This will be funded by taxes paid by the people. So, why do we have to wait when we can manage this?”

Photo: Social Security Commissioner Gonzalo Duque

Another benefit is the new maternity leave that allows 105 days off and can be used as paternity leave “at the mother’s discretion or by the other wards.” This is now in effect and only needs the member to apply for it.

Retirable age is at 65 years, early retirement at 60 and for miners, retirable age is 54.

Duque said the country used to be tops for “technologically prepared” Social Security management but for years, efforts to streamline the system was dormant.

He explained that Oracle used to monopolize the country’s system. “You will be angry if you see the old M9000 (at work). Now we are seeking bids from Microsoft and Alibaba.”

The target now is “50 to 60 percent” automation for the SS in three years’ time. No less than Finance Sec. Carlos Dominguez ordered the automation.

Duque also said the new SS office is there to “ease the pain” out of claiming pensions and make it efficient “with less personnel or personal contact because these cause delay.”

He was referring to the current situation with OJT interns tasked with the work for regular employees. To illustrate the point, he related having to write on a feminine napkin just to get attention in the long line.

Adding to the problem is older members’ inexperience in claiming or fear of technology. He said that the Agency “re-engineered” the claim process that is bogged down by requiring birth, death and a lot of other certificates to get started. He calls it “critical thinking and tinkering.”

Duque told the story of helping out a claimant who was getting nowhere because he could not produce a death certificate and instructed a clerk to accept the hospital certificate for burial as secondary evidence. “They have not internalized the ease of doing business (which is a mandate of the Duterte administration).”

Duque said he was included in the graft and plunder charges filed by Public Attorney Office Chief Persida Acosta against his brother Francisco. The original charge against Francisco was conflict of interest over the lease agreement of their family’s corporation with Philhealth.

Gonzalo believes that under the principle of complete staff work, those responsible should have been those who reviewed the contract.

Gonzalo’s statement that the corporation was inherited from his family was taken to be a confirmation of violation, he said. He called the situation “trial by publicity.”

“Just the same, there are forces within and outside the government that will bring my brother down. Maybe they have their own political-economic agenda because my brother has been refusing to sign contracts laced with corruption. I would like to know who they are and soon. We’ll also prepare our own suits against them.”

Gonzalo also said, “My brother can defend himself” and “when you’re in politics, you can’t have onion skin; you must have Union cement skin: Impenetrable, impregnable.”

On the day he left Manila, Gonzalo reacted none too finely to Sen. Ping Lacson’s allegation of conflict of interest against his brother Francisco. Gonzalo called Lacson a “demon” and exclaimed he was a fool for not studying the history before casting his accusations.

He said, “I’m really sorry I had to react that way. To me, it’s water under the bridge. When you push somebody up against the wall, you expect reaction be it emotional or something else. (They also hit) my family and I had to address that.”

“I respect the Senate as an institution. We can work together instead of finding faults. We need to solve issues especially Philhealth. But I have not heard of any solution. I hope Sen. Lacson and Congress are listening.”

Duque proposed to put up a judicial committee to try cases involving government-owned and -controlled institutions. “Because if you transfer these to the regular court like what happened to the Securities and Exchange Commission under PD 902A, the intent is good but it further clogged the courts on fraud and other criminal acts.”

He cited the recent ghost dialysis scams that rocked Philhealth. “We should change our paradigm, from dis-accrediting hospitals despite the (mess) they created. Why? Because they may be the only hospital in the area serving people. Like the dialysis center in Bontoc with a fraud case. It was the only one in the area. Don’t dis-accredit the hospital. Punish the wrongdoers – the officers, board members, their accountants, the specific department like in the cataract scam. Revoke the licenses of doctors who did it. Cases should be heard and investigated fast.”

As a parting shot, Duque shared what he said was a lesson he learned from Sen. Jovito Salonga: “The capacity of men to do justice makes democracy possible but the capacity of men to do injustice makes democracy necessary.”