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Meralco to be called anew to explain ‘bill shock’

MANILA, Philippines — The Senate will summon officials of Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) anew after the power distributor failed to keep its promise to clearly explain the surge in the monthly bills of its customers during the lockdown, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian said on Sunday.

Gatchalian, chair of the Senate energy committee, said he himself was stunned by his bill, which rose to P16,000 for the May-June reading period from the previous monthly average of about P3,000.

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He noted that Meralco officials had assured lawmakers at the May 23 hearing of the Joint Congressional Energy Commission, which the senator had presided over, that they would send a written explanation to customers who had complained of “bill shock.”

“I will send a letter to Meralco informing them that we are not satisfied with what they have done and that we’re not happy with how they explained the bill for the month of (May),” Gatchalian said in a radio interview.

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Meralco spokesperson Joe Zaldarriaga said the company was charging customers only for what they had used.

Difficult to understand

“We would like to also assure our customers that they will only be billed for their actual consumption, based on their actual meter readings,’’ Zaldarriaga said in a text message to the Inquirer.

Gatchalian found Meralco’s explanation on its website about the surge in monthly bills difficult to understand. “They even showed a formula. If you’re an ordinary citizen, you will find it very hard to comprehend,” he said.

People are willing to pay their bills but they want to understand what they are paying for, the senator said.

“[Meralco] should… ‘laymanize’ the explanation. It’s important for people to understand what they are paying for. Otherwise, it’s like buying something you don’t even know,” Gatchalian told the Inquirer over the phone.

On May 29, the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) issued a show-cause order requiring Meralco, a publicly listed company, to explain why it supposedly flouted the commission’s order to allow customers to settle their bills in four equal monthly staggered payments.

The ERC reminded the power distributor not to add to the burden of its customers, many of whom lost jobs after the government imposed strict quarantine measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

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Average consumption

As of March, Meralco had 6.4 million residential accounts, or 92 percent of the total. Commercial customers accounted for 530,864 (8 percent) connections and industrial customers, 10,580 (0.2 percent).

Meralco had billed customers based on average consumption from December to February because meter reading could not be done in March and April due to the enhanced community quarantine in Luzon that was aimed at preventing the spread of the new coronavirus.

Averaging the consumption was upon the orders of regulators, who said the difference with actual consumption would be settled in future bills.

Disconnection notices

Zaldarriaga earlier noted that consumers used home appliances longer during the quarantine and that the May bill was based on actual consumption, with adjustments already reflected from the previous estimated usage.

Sen. Imee Marcos said Meralco should refrain from issuing disconnection notices to its clients to help them recover from the pandemic.

She said the moratorium on disconnection should include water distributors after their customers also complained of a sudden increase in their bills.

“There should be a suspension in disconnecting [electric and water] services. Why should they do that [when we’re still facing a pandemic]?” Marcos said.

Meralco said there would be no disconnections.

“We would like to assure the public and all consumers that Meralco will not disconnect the service of our customers,” Zaldarriaga said.

He reiterated that for four unpaid bills incurred during the quarantine, an installment payment plan of four to six months was in place, depending on the customers’ electricity consumption.

Gatchalian suggested that Meralco automatically apply the four equal monthly installment payments for the succeeding bills of all customers.

Meralco’s franchise areas—which account for about three-quarters of its business in Luzon—stretch from Metro Manila to as far north as Pampanga province and to as far south as Quezon province. INQ

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TAGS: high electric bill, MERALCO, Senate probe
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