Bleeding hearts
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva1 (The Philippine Star) - January 21, 2016 - 9:00am

It is rather funny, if not disconcerting, to find so many members of the 16th Congress coming out as champions for the elderly and senior citizens who were directly affected by the vetoed P2,000 pension hike of the Social Security System (SSS) retirees. Where were these senators and congressmen while this proposed SSS pension hike bill was still being deliberated and processed at the legislative mills?

It is so easy to pin the blame on President Benigno “Noy” Aquino III because he decided to veto the bill two days before it lapsed into law. Obviously, it was also a very difficult decision for President Aquino because it took him that long to choose the right thing to do at this time.

The press conference last Tuesday called by SSS officials led by its president and chief executive officer Emilio de Quiros Jr. did not help any to deescalate the emotional response to the presidential veto. Instead, it further fanned animosity of the affected pensioners. Worse, it gained undeserved public support to these lawmakers purportedly taking up the cudgels for the poor pensioners.

Aided by audio-visual of their financial statements in numbers, tables and graphs, De Quiros insisted the SSS could not possibly absorb the increase in monthly pension of 2.5 million pensioners by an additional P2,000. Otherwise, De Quiros warned anew, the future pension of 30 million members actively contributing to the SSS will be compromised.

The demeanor and the statements made by these SSS officials during that press conference were even condescending, if not lacking empathy for the affected pensioners. Thus, these SSS officials even gave these lawmakers more opportunity to cash in on their heartless pronouncements.

These SSS officials did not even bother to give comforting words to assuage the affected pensioners that further studies are still being done on how to ease their plight through additional benefits other than pension increase. Instead, they raised anew the actuarial study that the financial life of the state pension fund will be shortened, if not depleted had the President not vetoed it.

This is why a new joke was coined out of the root word “veto” that was transformed into Tagalog verb. P-Noy is now called “Benito” (as in Ve-nito).

Levity aside, what made this veto irksome was to hear from these state fund administrators taking credit for the supposed financial turnaround of the SSS since President Aquino appointed them in office. But in one of their presentations, they implicated their incompetence.

One of which was a historical presentation of the SSS pension increases through the years without any hikes in members’ contributions for 23 years. A look at these historical increases clearly showed SSS pension hikes were granted at an average of ten to 15 percent to as much as 20 percent during the term of P-Noy’s late mother, former President Corazon Aquino.

When De Quiros and his fellow P-Noy appointees took over, the monthly pension rose a measly five percent in 2014. But they also raised to 11 percent in the same year members’ contributions to SSS.

The only other times that hikes in SSS members’ contributions took place were in 2003 when it went up to 9.4 percent and in 2007, when it was jacked up to 10.4 percent.

My 78-year-old mother who was watching the televised press conference could only mutter at these SSS officials: “Kuripot!” Roughly translated, tightwad for the measly increase.

That I think was the mildest reaction of one SSS pensioner.

The Commission on Audit also cited another SSS oversight that may partly explain its dire financial condition to absorb higher pension. A COA report showed the SSS could have earned as much as P198.118 million in additional income in 2014 had it rented out idle assets worth P17.956 billion, including over 100 condominium units.

State auditors called the attention of SSS for allowing the properties to remain idle, which they said is tantamount to depriving the SSS of additional funds for social protection and for buttressing its financial standing. As reported by the Asset Management Department (AMD) of the SSS no less, COA noted most of the properties are not generating any income.

The same SSS officials have also been under fire for their salaries and perks that reportedly amounted to P116 million for 34 executives in 2014. De Quiros, however, insisted they are covered by the law on Government Corporate Governance that limits what amount of salaries and allowances they could get based on their performance. And since they claimed to have turned around the financial situation of the SSS, they were thus entitled to receive these amounts due them.

Yesterday, SSS senior vice president for actuary George Ongkeko Jr. disclosed before a media forum that studies are underway for a possible new increase in the monthly premium contribution of its 30 million members to fund a P1,000 hike in the pension of 2.15 million retirees that lawmakers are suggesting.

Initial figure tossed around is a 2.4-percent additional premium that would be deducted from the monthly salary of SSS paying contributors. This means the monthly deduction would reach 13.4 percent percent from the 11 percent to finance a possible compromise amount of P1,000 pension increase. Ongkeko estimated this will cost SSS about P28 billion for one year to pay all retirees. Ongkeko reiterated though the dire warning anew of SSS pension fund depletion.

Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. urged his fellow lawmakers to pass the companion bill of the vetoed SSS pension hike that seeks to authorize the SSS board autonomy to decide increases on monthly contributions and grant pension hikes and other benefits without having to get the President’s approval or go to Congress to enact them into law.

As it is at present, SSS pension only needs executive action, not legislated one.

The proposed measure earlier approved by the House would give the SSS additional leeway to adjust contributions and benefits as presently enjoyed by the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS). The Senate, however, did not pass the counterpart bill.

As for the bleeding hearts among members of Congress, they should first look at themselves. They were the ones who failed these SSS pensioners for not performing well their legislative duties to craft a law that would really work. It is time to depoliticize our state pension fund, pass this House bill.


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