A party-list legislator on Tuesday warned that Manila Electric Company (Meralco) might be held liable under Republic Act 11469, or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, should it fail to “satisfactorily address” the “bill shock” experienced by its customers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Meralco should be made to explain why it is not guilty of violating the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act following the surge in the electricity bills of its customers while the country is under a state of public health emergency and millions suffer from the economic fallout of lockdown measures to contain the spread of COVID-19,” House Deputy Majority Leader and Bagong Henerasyon Rep. Bernadette Herrera said.
In the Senate, Sen. Win Gatchalian, chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy, said his office had been receiving receiving complaints from consumers on their high electricity rates amid the prevailing Enhanced Community Quarantine.
In a statement, Gatchalian said: “Many of us are left wondering how Meralco has come up with such high charges especially during this time of the pandemic when many of us are facing mounting expenses and loss of livelihood.
“The problem lies with Meralco’s confusing electricity bill. Meralco has failed to provide Filipinos a clearer and justified explanation on why bills have gone up so high.”
Gatchailian said his office had started initial inquiries on whether or not Meralco had taken advantage of the current pandemic situation to the detriment of the Filipino consumers.
At the same time, groups belonging to the Power for People Coalition (P4P) on Tuesday sent a P19.12 billion bill to the Manila Electric Company (Meralco) for all refunds and interest that remain unpaid by the electricity distributor since 2003.
The bill was sent via email to the Meralco Corporate Office, in response to the bills sent by Meralco to consumers, which have set social media ablaze as complaints of excessive billings were posted even on Meralco’s own social media page.
P4P Convenor Gerry Arances said: “The amount concerns all Meralco payables due to consumers that the company has not paid. These payables come in the form of refunds ordered by the Supreme Court and the Energy Regulatory Commission for various illegal billing practices of Meralco since 2003, plus interest, as a penalty for their tardy and inconvenient methods of refunding, and as a cut of the profits Meralco made by keeping the cash for so long.
“Following standard Meralco practice, we consider this bill immediately due.”
Meralco earlier denied allegations of P4P that the company was possibly using the ECQ to maximize its billing from consumers but remained silent on the issue of refunds.
Arances said: “Meralco wants to wash the issue of refunds away. Since we are on the topic of billing, we must be fair.
“Meralco must be fair and transparent on what consumers owe them, and consumers will be transparent on what Meralco owes them.
“By retaining this money of consumers, Meralco has been able to use the money in its cash flows and extract more profit from it, while making it difficult for the rightful owners of the funds to claim them.”
The amount included 12 percent interest per annum, except for the 2019 and 2020 refund orders, which will be subject to the maximum 6 percent interest rate set by the BSP a year after the respective dates of the refund orders' issuance.
Arances added: “The claim for interest is only fair, after all, it was Meralco who consciously decided, after overbilling consumers and making them pay immediately, to delay the return of this money.
“The interest rate serves as a penalty for Meralco for its dilatory tactics, a way to minimize the effect of inflation on the consumer’s money, and of course, the proper share of consumers with the profits Meralco made with their money.”
The total does not include ₱28.24 billion in bill deposits which Meralco refuses to return without at least three years of continuous payments to the utility.
Arances said: “By keeping the money for three years, Meralco effectively has a three-year, interest-free loan from consumers and they would return the principal without interest only if you satisfy their conditions.”
Herrera issued the statement as she joined mounting calls for the Energy Regulatory Commission to look into the drastic increases in the monthly bills of Meralco customers during the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine.
At the same time, the Makabayan Bloc in the House of Representatives filed 879 on Monday urging the House committee on energy to conduct a congressional investigation into the sudden spike in electric bills.
In HR 879, the Makabayan bloc said "such high and unconscionable electric bills only added more anxiety to many, especially now when most people are in dire straits to survive the harsh effects of the crisis brought by the COVID-19 pandemic."
The Makabayan bloc noted that the spike occurred despite President Rodrigo Duterte telling Congress in a report dated May 4 that there was an "excess capacity over peak demands" in electricity consumption, with Luzon only using 3,341 megawatts or 29 percent, the Visayas with 858 megawatts or 33 percent, and Mindanao with 878 megawatts or 35 percent.
The Makabayan Bloc is composed of Reps. Carlos Zarate, Ferdinand Gaite, and Eufemia Cullamat of Bayan Muna; France Castro of ACT Teachers; Arlene Brosas of Gabriela Women's Party; and Sarah Elago of Kabataan.
As one of the authors of RA 11469 in Congress, Herrera noted the law grants President Duterte the power to adopt temporary emergency measures to respond to the crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The law empowers the President to enforce measures to protect people from hoarding, profiteering, manipulating prices, or other practices affecting the supply and distribution of essential goods and services, including electricity,” Herrera said
These illegal acts, she said, are punishable with imprisonment of two months or a fine of P10,000 to P1 million, or both, at the discretion of the court.
At the same time, Herrera said Meralco should respond to claims that its May 2020 billing merely consolidated two months worth of readings conducted on March 20 and April 20, and made them both due on May 29.
If these claims are true, Herrera said Meralco violated the ERC advisories on the deferment of due dates of billings that fell during the ECQ and allowing the payment in four equal payments.
In his statement, Gatchalian said: “I would like to remind Meralco of its obligation to follow the ERC advisories dated April 15, 2020 and May 5, 2020, on the proper computation of electricity bills and correct payment dates of bills due within the ECQ period, which should start after the ECQ and should be in 4 monthly installments.”
Arances added that aside from the refund and bill deposit, Meralco still has to answer charges of overbilling for the ECQ period and be held accountable for the power interruptions that were, according to Meralco, caused by the surge in demand in residential areas.
“We are overpaying for bad service. We repeat, we want a full inquiry on these matters, whether by the ERC or Congress, to force Meralco to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth to consumers,” said Arances.