Surviving an ‘acoustics war’

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As with any government agency accused of corrupt practices, working for the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) may not fall under someone’s definition of a dream job.

This gets even worse if the order from Malacañang includes cleaning up the said agency. Many might think it a tall order to tidy up an agency allegedly guilty of pilfering billions earmarked for charitable work. In fact, the allegations are of such magnitude that they have reached the highest strata of power.

One issue that was recently raised was the P6-million spent on a five-star hotel for the PCSO Christmas party. PCSO retorted that after working to reach P51-billion in revenues, their workers deserved the party.

President Rodrigo Duterte, speaking at the Sulong Pilipinas-Local Governance Dialogues in Davao City in the third quarter of 2016, has put his money where his mouth is, saying that the PCSO “is the most corrupt agency of government.” This, by any standard, is a call to war.

But then again, one can always tell it to the Marines.

“Tell it to the Marines” is quite the apt idiom in this case. The PCSO general manager has time and again refused to be fooled by what he calls an “acoustic war,” which in his definition falls under “battles lost and won in the media.”

General Manager and Chief Operating Officer Alexander Ferrer Balutan is a full-fledged, though retired Philippine Marines general, an experienced soldier in the field of battle. On this alone, much can be said about his strategy and the fighting skills he would need to get rid of “predators” lurking behind the dark corners of the agency.

Besides, basing it on Balutan’s numerous statements, it would take more than claims of corruption to make this Marine tuck tail and run.

The PCSO stands today as the Filipino’s chance at claiming some financial support should illness strike, including, yet not limited to, health services like “hospital confinement, dialysis (hemodialysis, peritoneal) and cancer treatment (e.g. chemotherapy),” to name a few.

The agency spends roughly P22-million per day on charitable expenses, all sourced from various activities including Lotto, Keno, Small Town Lottery (STL), and Sweepstakes.

Balutan assures the public that the monies do not come from government coffers, but from the gaming public.

One of its well-sought services, the agency’s Individual Medical Assistance Program (IMAP), focuses on securing the financial needs of all individuals with health-related problems.

Balutan explains in our interview, “PCSO issues a guarantee letter to the hospital or partner health facility which assumes the obligation of a specific amount due from the client for the services rendered.”

It remains to be seen how PCSO general manager Balutan would make good his promise of ridding the agency of blood-sucking elements. Balutan serves at the pleasure of the President.

With a Marine general at the helm, there is hope that the agency tasked to assist millions of Filipinos in desperate times may win in the war against corruption. Unless shown and proven otherwise, there’s little chance for a Marine general to quit in the heat of a fight.

Philippines Graphic: PCSO earned P52 billion in revenues. What is your target for this year?

GM Alexander Ferrer Balutan: The Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) aims to reach P60-billion revenue this year. The agency is preparing for a more heightened revenue collection strategy this year vis-à-vis President Duterte’s all-out war versus illegal gambling such as jueteng.

How do you expect to raise your revenues as per your target? Do you engage in special events besides your sweepstakes and lottery draws?

PCSO generates funds from Lotto, Keno, Small Town Lottery (STL), and Sweepstakes. We rely on the betting public to raise our revenues by playing more lottery games, especially STL.

STL made history by generating P15.7 billion revenue in 2017 (P1.3 billion/month) from mere P4.7 billion in just one year. This only goes to show that we are slowly eradicating the illegal numbers game because the betting public believes that STL is more transparent and their chances of winning are high.

That is why we are protecting the interest of the betting public. If we lose their trust, we will lose our business. They are the source of our revenue. We don’t get from people’s taxes, thru gaming only.

Your charter allocates 10% to 15% of your revenues to charity. How much of your revenues actually get allocated to charity, and what charitable causes get the most of this revenue allocation?

Republic Act 1169 (the PCSO Charter), particularly on revenue allocation, provides that the revenue of the PCSO shall be allocated to 55% for Prize Fund (payment of prizes), 30% for Charity Fund (various charity programs and service) and 15% as Operating Fund (maintenance and operating expenses)

Gloria Mayo, an indigent asking for financial support for her daughter who just gave birth, chances upon PCSO General Manager Alexander F. Balutan during his branch visit in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan

We have several programs under the Charity Assistance Department: The Individual Medical Assistance Program (IMAP) attends to the financial needs of all individuals with health-related problems through the provision of financial assistance. PCSO issues a guarantee letter to the hospital or partner health facility which assumes the obligation of a specific amount due from the client for the services rendered.

The agency also has the Institutional Partnership (IP) Program, Medicines and Medical Supplies Donation Program, Medical Equipment for Hospitals and Other Health Institutions, Calamity Assistance Program, AFP/PNP Health Facilities’ Capability Building Project, Capability Enhancement Assistance-PCSO Primary Health Care Capability Building Project, Milk Feeding Program (MFP), Construction of Health Facilities, PCSO ASAP Program, and PCSO Enrolment System for Hemo and Peritoneal Dialysis Patients.

Under the Medical Services Department, the agency has Out-Patient Services Program, which provides comprehensive health services for free; Auxiliary Ambulance Service, a free ambulance service to patients who need to be transported; Medical And Dental Mission, an outreach health care activities in the depressed community within and outside of Metro Manila and nearby provinces including provision of free medicines for those who have less or no access to health services offered by the Local government; and Medicine Donation Program (in-kind), which provides augmentation of the needed medicines in kind to qualified Government and non-government agencies enabling them to efficient and effective health care services.

How do you decide who gets charity from you, and how much?

It depends on the request. All requests for medical assistance, laboratory/diagnostic procedures, payment hospitalization, hearing aids, implants/prosthetic devices/wheelchair, dialysis should be accompanied by a letter of request addressed to the Hon. Chairman and/or General Manager with original/or certified true photocopy of medical abstract duly signed by the attending physician, endorsement letter from a Dialysis Center or hospital where PCSO allots an Endowment Fund, price quotation for laboratories, devices, and equipment, and photocopy of identification card with latest pictures of the requesting person with his/her signature indicated at the back.

I am the approving authority for all guarantee letters amounting below P1 million, but if they are more than (that), they are subject for the Board’s approval/deliberation.

You are known for supporting the needs of artists and journalists who fall ill. Is this part of your revenue allocation for charity, or is this a special allocation outside of your regular spending of P22 million a day in charity expenses?

These ill artists and journalists fall under the Individual Medical Assistance Program (IMAP), which aims to provide timely and responsive financial assistance to individuals with health-related needs.

The agency issues a guarantee letter to the hospital or partner health facility which assumes the obligation of a specific amount due from the client for the services rendered.

All Filipinos, not just artists or journalists, who request for assistance, either personally or through a representative, on a health-related concern, can avail, especially those who are confined in any health facility; those receiving health care management as outpatients; and those seeking management in foreign countries, provided that no health facility within the Philippines is capable of providing such procedure.The health services coverage include confinement, dialysis (hemodialysis, peritoneal) and cancer treatment (e.g. chemotherapy).

You support the sick that much we know. Do you also support other causes, such as education for the highly-gifted or for culture and the arts? Would you say it is time to underwrite such projects?

The Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office Charter, or Republic Act (RA) No. 1169, is mandated “to provide and raise funds for health programs, medical assistance and services, and charities of national character.”

Supporting the culture and the arts, and education are not part of the agency’s mandate. But they can seek financial assistance if they have health or medical issues/concerns.

As to laws on PCSO operations, the Ministry of Human Settlements, which no longer exists, is still mentioned in your Charter. Are there efforts to rectify this?

It is about time to amend the PCSO charter to adapt to our present times for it to be more dynamic and more effective; in fact, both Houses and the Senate are too keen in amending the PCSO charter in order for it to adapt to the present times.

Some people assume that the PCSO acts to smooth the way for the incumbent administration and is a political tool for granting charity funds only to those who support the incumbent administration. Are you? If so, can you expound on the answer. If not, please clarify the matter and cite specific examples of this.

If in the past this may be so, we are more transparent now, everything is based on assessment disregarding political color or creed, the disbursement is based on the on the need and the available funds.

Like in the cases of IMAP, we have our social workers to recommend and likewise in the case of ambulance distributions, we have the board to deliberate and decide. In the case of STL shares, the local government receives it upon the Local Government Unit head to come out with mechanics on the selection of patients they want to assist, and the fund released undergoes the scrutiny of the PCSO could not say that since the governor for example is not with the administration that we withhold the funds, this is not legal, whatever share the LGU has, the LGU gets.

Most people assume that PCSO only supports the needs of the poorest of the poor. Can you comment on this?

PCSO chooses no one, whether you’re rich or poor, as long as you are Filipino. Even if you’re rich if you suffer catastrophic illnesses, your bank savings will be drained.

However, the amount of assistance being approved depends on the social status of the applicant or patient classification, which is being classified by PCSO. For example, you belong to Class A, you will only get 50% assistance based on net/case rate. If you belong to Class F, you may get 100%.

PCSO has now simplified the requirements for those seeking medical assistance. Applicants will only need to submit a medical abstract, statement of account, letter from the hospital, and personal letter from the applicant minus the social case study.

Is there anything in your training as a Marine that you can bring to the table as PCSO GM in terms of serving your charity cases and in running the organization?

Serving as a Marine, our motto is “Honor, Duty, Valor,” such is still engrained within me, it may be a different battle, it may not be an armed battle fighting the rebels or terrorists but this time our war is to end illegal gambling, and this was tasked to us by no other than President Rodrigo R. Duterte.

We are not under martial law in the PCSO, this notion may now be circulating since military and police retired generals now have the top positions of the agency. We may be strict but we are doing this in a democratic manner, we likewise are strict as we need to achieve our goals, there may be some changes, but all is for the good. We have reached a record high collection in revenues, and we plan to improve this in the coming years. We are likewise aiming to meet ISO standards to attain accreditation, by doing so would mean better and more efficient services for those seeking and needing the help and services of PCSO.

What are the top three things you hope to achieve as PCSO GM during your tenure, and how will you set about doing this?

Three on the priority are to increase revenue collections, increase the number of regular employees, and to build a headquarters or corporate center.

PCSO General Manager Alexander Balutan and PCSO Chairman Anselmo Simeon Patron Pinili

We will note that there is a marked increase in revenue collections due to lottery games, from the traditional sweepstakes draws, I predict that by 2022, there will be higher productivity of lottery games which in turn will effectively address the medical needs of the people and the office’s expanded charity service.

Lotto and Small Town Lottery games are our biggest contributors to the revenue funds of the agency, we plan to increase our lotto outlets, as well as see to it that all our STL AACs will be fully operating.As of the present, we only have 81, out of the 93, that are fully operational.Other approved AACs are now on the stage of complying with PCSO standards in order to be fully operational. The office will likewise be reviewing the IRR of the operations of the expanded STL and if necessary, revise it, that we may come out with a more efficient system that will in turn increase revenue collection.

Under Republic Act No. 1169 or the PCSO Charter, the agency’s mission in the year 2018 is to broaden and strengthen its generation of funds for health-related and charity programs of President Rodrigo Duterte for the Filipino people, especially the poor through the effective implementation of the lottery games.

With regard to our man power, we see the need to increase the number of employees, especially the regulars, and provide them sufficient training that will enable them to effectively perform their duties.The increase with our man power with increase the rate of our delivery of services to the needy.

Currently, the agency has 63 branches across the country with the opening of six new branches last year in the provinces of Lanao del Norte, Catanduanes, Sultan Kudarat, Eastern Samar, Biliran, Davao del Norte, and Ifugao.

Our target for year 2018 is to open eight new branches more. If we accomplish this, we only need to build 10 more in the coming years and before 2022, we would have established a branch in 81 provinces.

If the layout of the organization is improved, better services to support poor families in the provinces will also become a reality.

On the view of having a PCSO national headquarters, or corporate center, we say, it is about time, the PCSO since it existed never had a permanent home, the construction of the headquarters will be under the Public-Private-Partnership, negotiations of which are currently on going. In view of this, we likewise will be having a strong Information and Security Risk Management Plan and Information Security Policy. Also, we will be aiming to acquire an ISO certification.

What are your initiatives, as a man who is a Marine to his core, to prevent/stop corruption in the PCSO, and is this a priority for you?

PCSO General Manager and Chief Operating Officer Alexander Ferrer Balutan

I was plucked out of retirement by our President to be the General Manager of PCSO on September 13, 2016, mainly to professionalize PCSO, rid it of corrupt personnel and improve the delivery of the medical and health services to the indigent Filipinos.

I owe that to the President. I shall not fail him and the countless indigent patients who look up to PCSO for deliverance. I shall guard the PCSO with my life if necessary, against those who might want to destroy it so that they can take over our gaming operations at the expense of the PCSO and the people. I will not allow it. Not while I’m around.

Truth to tell, I’m not used to ‘Acoustics War’ where battles are lost and won in the media. I can only shield myself from the malicious, self-serving propaganda by turning to my performance in helping streamline the operations of the PCSO, transparency and accountability in the discharge of my duty.

I shall not hesitate to unsheathe my sword again if only to slay the ‘Draculas’ and the ‘Predators’ of this world, and to protect the PCSO and its gaming operations that provide life to thousands of our indigent patients.

More importantly, I will not and cannot allow my detractors to tarnish my reputation that I have painstakingly built without a good fight. As Japanese Admiral Tojo, who was one of those who led the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II, said, “I have seen the enemy, they are us.”

*Interview with PCSO General Manager/CEO Alexander Balutan was conducted by Joel Pablo Salud and Alma Anonas-Carpio.



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