Oversight
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - August 15, 2020 - 12:00am

Congress legislated the Universal Health Care Law as well as the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act. Both intend to bring our people the healthcare and relief they need at this time of a pandemic. It is correct that the legislators exercise extreme oversight over the actual implementation of these measures.

It has been distressing to observe the hearings conducted in both chambers looking into allegations of systematic looting at PhilHealth, the main instrument for realizing universal healthcare. It is equally distressing to observe the hearings where evidence of abuse of the Social Amelioration Program (SAP) was presented.

This is a most difficult time for our people. It hard to imagine that the unscrupulous have continued as usual in raiding public funds intended for the most vulnerable. But evidence of the looting of cash subsidies is abundant, so abundant that it was decided the SAP would be coursed through the DSWD instead of local officials.

The latest word from the DILG says charges are ready to be filed against over 50 barangay chairmen for misusing the fund, either pocketing parts of it or diverting it exclusively to political supporters. Hopefully, the agency’s inquiry into the misuse of direct subsidies will not itself be politicized.

The House committee on good government and public accountability recently held a hearing on the distribution of SAP funds. Deputy Speaker LRay Villafuerte came to that hearing armed with a large amount of evidence to amplify complaints already filed against Iriga mayor Madelaine Alfelor. The mayor is said to be a good friend of one of the DILG undersecretaries.

This case is interesting not only because the mayor has friends in high places but also because some of the beneficiaries of the mayor’s generosity actually returned the money they felt they did not deserve. Among those who returned their SAP allocations are lowly employees of the University of Northeastern Philippines (UNEP), an institution allegedly owned by the mayor’s family. Some who returned the money said they were not residents of Iriga.

One UNEP grade school teacher narrates in her affidavit that the Iriga mayor personally handed her the P5,000 cash but reminded her that this was a “secret activity.” Teacher Deocyl Monte Maninang, however, was advised by her father-in-law (a barangay kagawad) to return the money because her husband had already received the same subsidy. She went to the DSWD, with an affidavit, to return the cash. The DSWD personnel entertained other UNEP employees returning cash they were given.

This is such a comforting story.

While the headlines distress us about officials stealing from government coffers in the midst of a pandemic, little has been written about the little people who put honesty and decency first. These little people are the ones who will ensure our community survives this difficult episode.

Reductions

There are a few other things that might console us in this dreary time as we fight a deadly virus. Some might seem small at first blush but they do add up.

This month, those in the Meralco service area will enjoy a small reduction in their electricity bills. For small residential users consuming about 200 kWh, the reduction will amount to P41.

What is significant, however, is that this is the fifth consecutive month of reductions in our Meralco bills. Since the start of this year, the rate reductions add up to over one peso per kWh. This month’s charges will be the lowest since September 2017.

These reductions are attributable to the highly competitive manner the distribution utility awarded power supply agreements (PSAs). The lower prices the utility has been able to wring from the generation companies will save Meralco consumers about P9.46 billion each year for at least the next ten years.

Under the leadership of Meralco president Ray Espinosa, the distribution utility was able to leverage the size of its PSAs to win more affordable power rates for the consumer. On Dec. 26, 2019, the distribution utility concluded three 10-year PSAs with Phinma Energy Corporation, San Miguel Energy Corporation and South Premiere Power Corporation at rates significantly below prevailing market rates. The PSAs will last until Dec. 25, 2029.

Before the competitive biddings were done, critics of the distribution utility raised unfounded fears of collusion among the large generation and distribution companies leading to the consumers paying more for the power they use. The usual critics are proven wrong by the outcome of the intensely competitive bidding process and the consequent reductions in our electricity bills.

Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano praised the reduction of electricity rates in the Meralco service area. The House of Representatives had earlier asked the distribution utility to help relieve the pressure on consumers wrought by the pandemic and the resulting economic recession.

During the House hearings on the so-called “bill shock,” Meralco agreed to shoulder the P47 convenience fee per transaction for digital payments and allowed up to six months installment payments to help its consumers cope. In addition, the distribution utility wrote all its consumers to explain the adjustments made during the lockdown and assure them all billings would be based on actual meter readings.

In addition to the lower generation costs won through the competitive bidding process, lower prices at the Wholesale Electricity Spot Market (WESM) due to less outages helped the reductions in electricity billings reaching consumers. The better maintained our generation plants are, the more consumers will benefit.

For decades, before reforms in our power sector were put in place, we had one of the highest electricity prices in the world.

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