‘Undue stress:’ Lawmakers quiz Meralco on ‘bill shock’ amid pandemic
MANILA, Philippines — Three lawmakers on Friday quizzed the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) over the “bill shock” experienced by its customers, pointing out that it has created “undue stress” to Filipinos in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
During the Joint Congressional Energy Commission (JCEC) hearing, Senator Sherwin Gatchalian called out Meralco for its supposed “lack of transparency especially in these times of confusion and crisis.”
Before this, Meralco’s First Vice President and Head of Customer Retail Services and Corporate Communications Victor Genuino explained to lawmakers why consumers got billed for either high or low power consumption when they received their May bill.
Meralco has billed customers based on average consumption from December to February because meter reading could not be done in March and April with the entire Luzon placed under ECQ.
Averaging the consumption was upon the order of regulators, who said the difference with actual consumption would be settled in future bills.
According to Genuino, Meraclo partially resumed its meter-reading activities for its commercial and industrial consumers on April 11 and on April 27 for its residential customers.
He noted that the March and April estimated bills were printed and delivered from May 1 to 6 while bills for May have been sent out since May 8.
“Customers with high consumption during ECQ, ang nangyari ho dito, is that the estimated bills (for March and April) are lower than actual consumption with May reading. So yung mga (the) March and April bill na na-estimate natin (that we estimated), underestimated ho ‘yan (that’s underestimated),” Genuino said.
“Ito ho yung may mga bahay na may nakatira hong mga residente natin na nag-work from home at gumamit ho ng mga appliances nang mas matagal at mas mahaba,” he added.
(These involve household whose residents are working from home and are using appliances longer).
For customers whose bills for May reflected low to zero consumption, this means that Meralco may have “overestimated” their power consumption for March and April.
“Yung scenario two naman natin, meron ho tayong mga customers with low or no consumption during ECQ. Ito hong nangyari dito, malamang overestimated naman ang bills nila,” Genuino said.
(The second scenario is we have customers with low or no consumption during ECQ. What happened here, we probably overestimated their power consumption.)
“Itong (ay yung) homes na wala hong nakatirang tao, mga condo na yung mga tao ho ay umuwi at unoccupied yung mga bahay, or mga negosyo na nag-reduce ng operations nila during ECQ,” he added.
(These are homes where there are no occupants, unoccupied condominium units whose owners opted to go home or business establishments which reduced operations during ECQ.)
Genuino said Meralco will be sending out letters to its customers to explain how their respective meters were read.
But Gatchalian said that it should have already been “very clearly” stated in the electricity bill whether a customer’s electricity consumption was overestimated or underestimated.
“Makikita ho niyo dito sa bill dito, wala naman hong nakalagay kung overestimated or underestimated. Lumalabas parang ito lang yung consumption nung May,” the senator said, referring to a sample bill presented during the hearing.
(In this bill, there is no indicator if the power consumption stated in the bill had been overestimated or underestimated. This would look like as if this was the actual consumption for May.)
“So talagang mahihilo ka magkakaroon ka ho talaga ng bill shock and even though Meralco admitted that nagkulang sila, I’d like to reiterate malaki ang pagkukulang pagdating sa transparency,” he added.
(So you will really be confused and you will be shocked and even though Meralco already admitted that there were lapses, I’d like to reiterate that there was a lack of transparency).
“We have to unbundle the exact rates that are being charged to our consumers. Hindi ho ganitong naka-lumpsum (Not lumpsum)…You don’t need to create undue stress to our consumers,” Gatchalian further said.
Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco, who led the House contingent in the JCEC hearing, also said that Meralco should have been more “proactive” in explaining to its consumers about how they were billed for power use.
“Naga-average nga tayo but all of a sudden biglang nag-spike. I think it is more of yung kakulangan nga sa pag-inform sa public. I think yung pagiging proactive niyo kinulang. I mean if you’re just going to explain it to the public right now after the bill was sent, medyo masakit yon,” he said.
(We computed the average consumption (for the March and April bills) and then there’s a spike (in the May bill). I think the issue is more on not informing the public enough. I think you lacked in being proactive. I mean if you’re just explaining to the public right now after the bill was sent, that would hurt).
“Nagkaka-COVID na nga tayo, (ang) hirap ng buhay tapos biglang dumating yung napakataas na bill e parang sinipa tayo niyan,” he added.
(We’re in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, life is hard then comes a high electric bill, this feels like a kick in the guts.)
Velasco also inquired about the meter-reading activities of Meralco in April, which Genuino said was done at a limited capacity.
“Out of your whole franchise, mga ilang percent yung na-meter read (What’s the percetage of the meter you’ve already read)?” the lawmaker asked.
In response, Genuino said: “In April…wala pa pong one percent ang residential po yung nabasahan natin (Less that one percent of our residential consumers).”
“I think you have a lot of explaining to do because yung na-meter read niyo lang (the meter you’ve read) is one percent or less than one percent of your whole franchise. Then you give us this explanation applying to everyone,” Velasco told Genuino.
“You should’ve just attached already the explanation of how you came about with that computation. Marami sa social media naglabas ng kanilang mga saloobin. May mga wala sa condo nila tapos, yung charges nila tumaas parin, so nakakapagtaka talaga (Many are letting out their grievances on social media. They’re not even in their condo unit but their charges are still high, so you start to wonder),” he added.
To prevent such incidents from happening again, Genuino said Meralco is looking to shift to smart metering, adding that the firm “could’ve done better” in informing its consumers.
“Even though nilagay ho namin yung sa bill ads namin na these bills are estimated, we could’ve done better on informing our customers to properly understand their May bill, pero ang nakikita ho namin moving forward are the solution to this is technology, if we have the smart meters po in place, hindi na ho tayo kailangang mag-estimate,” he said.
(Even though we indicated in our ads that these bills are estimated, we could’ve done better on informing our customers to properly understand their May bill, but what I see is that moving forward are the solution to this is technology, if we have the smart meters in place, we don’t need to estimate anymore.)
With smart meters, Genuino said these would expedite meter-reading activities so that Meralco would not have to resort to estimating a customer’s power consumption.
“Hindi na ho tayo kailangan mgpadala ng mga tao para magbasa ng metro because makikita na ho via remote reading lahat ng konsumo ng bawat consumer na nakabitan ho natin,” he said.
(We would not need to send people out to read meters because reading the consumption of our consumers would be done remotely.)
“Learning din ho ito sa (This is also a learning for) Meralco but moving forward if this were to happen again, I think this smart metering solution will be our best defense to avoid a similar circumstance,” he added.
Senator Risa Hontiveros likewise called out the seeming confusion triggered by the spike in May bills.
“It became a very confused situation na nangangailangan ng komplikadong paliwanag which is also stressful to customers…considering this lack of clarity and transparency, can we really blame customer already suffering from loss income during the lockdown?” she asked Genuino.
Genuino then assured that the power firm would ensure that it would “properly communicate as much as (it) can on how the May bill is rendered to customers.”
“We understand the situation that our kababayans are in, we are not blaming them, we know that they’re going (through) a very difficult time,” he said.
To provide relief to consumers amid the health crisis, the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) earlier allowed the staggered payment of electricity bills that had fallen due during the ECQ.
The ERC said it would also order a six-month staggered payment of elecrticity bills for “targeted” consumers under the modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ).
Metro Manila, Laguna and several Luzon provinces been placed under a modified ECQ while Cebu City and Mandaue City will still be under ECQ until May 31.
Latest figures from the DOH showed that there are so far 13,597 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country. Of the number, 3,092 have recovered while 857 have died.