Time ticking on Colombian healthcare scandal

Colombia’s Comptroller General has less than a week to produce results on the $4.4 billion healthcare embezzlement scandal, local media reported Thursday.

Colombia’s Constitutional Court on November 16 gave the Comptroller’s Office a 20-day extension to produce results that have been four years in the making. With just six days left, the government’s financial watchdog is scrambling to deliver a plan to control institutional corruption and make the healthcare system financially sustainable.

In 2008, the Constitutional Court declared the “state of affairs in [Colombia’s] healthcare system is unconstitutional” and that the government had failed to regulate it. On November 16 the court subpoenaed Sandra Morelli [Colombia’s Comptroller General] and the rest of her office to reveal how far along disciplinary and criminal investigations are.

“There is no justification for the continued injection of resources into the system when clearly [our advice has fallen on] deaf ears,” the Court announced. “Without proper and necessary actions of regulatory agencies…[Colombia] will have a similar fate [continued corruption and misallocation of funds].”

In January, the President of Colombia’s Medical Federation, Sergio Isaza, said that “more than $2.7 billion was in the hands of corrupt health insurers.”

“They have stolen money to build clubs, golf courses, hotels, to finance [sports] teams, and even to export capital,” claimed Isaza, who also said the government would be unable to recover the money because it lacks the adequate legal mechanisms to do so.

The Comptroller’s Office is the primary government entity responsible for prosecuting healthcare fraud, and as such, the Constitutional Court called on it to do a better job.

“Control entities must exercise the powers of inspection and surveillance…before [state funds are issued and they must] be followed closely to their destination…to guard [from] possible embezzlement,” the Court stated.

“The issue of drug cost inflation has become one of the biggest sources of corruption in the system…the performance of the supervisory bodies is ineffective and inefficient,” the judges declared.

Colombia’s Comptroller General said on Thursday that “if individuals who managed health resources used them to increase their [own] wealth, [they] should return [the funds], as indicated by the State Council and the courts.” Morelli also said she told the Supersalud [the government’s top healthcare agency] that they should demand misallocated funds be repaid.

In its November 16 report, Colombia’s Constitutional Court recognized that the Comptroller’s investigations have been key in revealing the extent of corruption in the healthcare system, but said the country is still awaiting results four years after the scandal broke. The Comptroller’s office “did not respond to questions…regarding the results of the 157 investigations [mentioned] in the previous hearing,” the Court pointed out.

Arrest warrants for 20 health officials implicated in misallocating public funds were filed last month after two convicted felons delivered prosecutors concrete evidence highlighting numerous procedural irregularities. Based on this evidence, researchers reportedly examined thousands of incriminating documents that had been authorized by multiple health insurance companies. Amongst other accusations, the companies in question allegedly approved medical procedures for dead people, subsequently embezzling the funds via clever bookkeeping, a claim Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos reiterated last May.

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