Velasco bills for president to stop SSS, PhilHealth hikes breeze through panels
Speaker Lord Allan Velasco presides over a House session in this undated photo.
The STAR/Boy Santos, file

Velasco bills for president to stop SSS, PhilHealth hikes breeze through panels

Ramon Royandoyan, Xave Gregorio (Philstar.com) - January 21, 2021 - 2:03pm

MANILA, Philippines — Leadership proposals that authorize President Rodrigo Duterte to defer contribution increases in government health and pension systems advanced at the House of Representatives on Thursday.

House Bills 8316 and 8317 of Speaker Lord Allan Velasco quickly hurdled their committee hearings and are now set for plenary debates. The measures give the sitting president the power to postpone scheduled premium increases for Social Security System (SSS) and the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) during national emergencies.

Yet despite the swift initial passage, the bills, eyed as reprieve to workers battered by the pandemic, are unlikely to create a significant impact this year. For one, even without HB 8316, PhilHealth gave in to pressure from legislators and suspended the scheduled premium adjustment to 3.5% of monthly salaries from 3% originally.

At the most, only HB 8317’s passage, if realized, would make a bigger change and defer a similar increase in SSS contributions to 13% from 12% of wages. But that would also depend on whether Duterte, if the bill is enacted, would ultimately utilize the power to delay SSS adjustments. 

As it is, Duterte’s top economic adviser, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III who sits as SSS chair, had staunchly opposed any deferment. Aurora Ignacio, SSS president, agreed with Dominguez. 

“The provisions of the bills tend to weaken rather than strengthen the SSS especially in these difficult times,” she said on Thursday’s hearings.

“Postponing or stopping the increase in member contributions will further exacerbate our already dire financial position,” she added.

But Neri Colmenares, former House member and Bayan Muna chair, said the pension fund for private workers has sufficient assets to offset losses from delays in rate adjustments, which Ignacio estimated would reach P41.37 billion this year. “It already has a hedge…It already has capital for things like this pandemic,” he said, partly in Filipino.

The same argument was made by Marikina Rep. Stella Luz Quimbo at the simultaneous hearing held for the PhilHealth rate hike suspension. Based on the health insurer’s records, she said the P169-billion reserve fund can be tapped to ensure services are not hampered even when premiums are kept steady.

Quimbo’s assessment was predicated on her estimate that PhilHealth would only lose “around P500 million” by keeping its present 3% rate. The health agency came up with a larger figure of losing P12 billion without the premium increment, which it claimed would delay the roll-out of universal healthcare components such as full coverage of outpatient services to lower out-of-pocket health spending.

“With all due respect, I don’t think the suspension of an increase should reduce the services PhilHealth offers,” Quimbo said.

Senate hearings soon

Annual premium increases in PhilHealth contributions is a provision of Republic Act 11223 that provided healthcare for all Filipinos and improved current health services available at a discount or for free. The law was a Duterte government priority, but has been hardly enforced after resources were diverted to the pandemic.

On top of the health crisis, lawmakers have likewise pushed for PhilHealth to stop charging more while not being accountable to the P15 billion still missing allegedly to corrupt practices in the agency. Top officers, including immediate past president Ricardo Morales, were charged and resigned as a result of the controversy.

With first reading over, the bills have just gotten closer to passage at the Lower House. At the Senate, Senator Joel Villanueva, who initiated Senate Bill 1968 to delay PhilHealth rate hikes, said committee hearings on his bill counterpart measure would soon be held.

“Senator (Richard) Gordon made a statement at the plenary that he will prioritize and hear ASAP,” said Villanueva, who co-authored the bill with Senators Grace Poe and Juan Miguel Zubiri. — with Bella Perez-Rubio

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