The case of the vanishing pension and others

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JAIME J. YAMBAO

A FEW days ago, I was asked by Ambassador Larry Baja, our chairman and president, respectively, of the Philippine Ambassadors Foundation Inc. and the Department of Foreign Affairs Retirees Foundation Inc. to address an affair hosted by the DFA’s Human Resources Management Office honoring the 2017 retirees. Pondering what I would say, I knew that I would not be talking about my travels, official and unofficial, when I was in active service. Few people these days of easy and inexpensive travel find the travels of others interesting. How much more your former colleagues who had done those same things you did? Unless of course you just survived a plane crash.

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What I decided to talk about was something close to that. I talked about what the real score was when one retired from the service. As the speaker after me observed, after my talk a pall of gloom fell on the hall. It was incumbent upon her to relieve the situation by cracking a joke. This is the problem with Filipinos. They cannot stand reality.

I welcomed the new retirees to the fold and asked that they consider participating in or joining our two organizations because, I pointed out, these organizations were founded and existed to fill actual retirees’ needs. This the Department of Foreign Affairs that they served for much of their lifetimes, frankly, neglects or fails to address. Or even seems not to care about.

Put to pasture
The department treats retirees like they no longer belong to it or they are outside the ken of its responsibilities. Once you have been given your pension, awarded a medal or treated to a meal, you are likely to be led to the door and to pasture. In truth, the world of the DFA retiree is not all green and roses.

Take the wish of retired ambassadors to be consulted about a problem they encountered before but the department is groping about for a solution. Oh yes, I have been told by people in the active service that the department should use my experience and that of other retired ambassadors, and I have replied, “ the department knows where to contact me but I have never been called to share my expertise and experiences.” It seems all but flattery and lip service from what are actually know-it-alls.

The reality of course is that retirees do have experience that the department will do well to use. The DFA through its Human Resources Management Office will manage to find ways of harnessing the valuable human resources that retirees represent. I suggested that perhaps an institutional mechanism similar to the one I observed in China could be helpful. There retired ambassadors serve as resource persons in an in-house think-tank called a Chinese People’s Institute for Foreign Affairs.

Later, it was asked, what about the Foreign Service Institute? Well, the organization they have in China is quite unlike the FSI. It is not a training institute. For the forums, or even the training courses that it organizes, the FSI has shown a preference to invite complete outsiders and foreigners. For a forum on the archipelagic doctrine, the FSI invited an Indonesian who forthwith claimed to have pioneered the doctrine to the outrage of those who staffed and watched the late Sen. Arturo Tolentino fathering it. More recently, the FSI and the National Defense College invited an American doctoral candidate, who asserted that the Philippines filed the case against China in the arbitral tribunal because it believed it would lose if it filed it in the International Court of Justice.

Impelled by the desire to serve the national interest in foreign relations, we at PAFI meet regularly to analyze the soundness of foreign policies and developments for their implications for the making of foreign policy. Every now and then we formulate and issue position papers that constitute unsolicited advice that those in position or power may heed or ignore. We take turns in contributing articles expressing organizational and individual views to a column “Ambassadors Corner” appearing every Saturday in The Manila Times under an agreement between PAFI and the newspaper.

Loss of health insurance
A serious challenge that the DFA retiree faces is that he loses his health insurance coverage with retirement, at a point in his life that the risks of incurring a catastrophic illness are rising. All the insurance companies do not insure senior citizens, much less those with pre-existing conditions.

The DFARFI was organized to provide a kind of insurance to retired DFA employees who otherwise are not insurable. With the contributions it collects from its members, it pays a professional insurance company, Philcare, to administer a health insurance system for its members as in-patients or out-patients, covering up to P300,000 of their hospital costs during the year. The health care expenses of the members are exclusively drawn from the DFARFI fund. In the past, because of the number of members getting seriously ill and the DFAFI fund facing likely depletion, DFARFI engaged in fund-raising activities like a cash raffle and a golf tournament. Without those fund-raising activities and simply by making savings and economies, DFARFI expects this year and at least next year stability or sufficiency in its fund. A disadvantage of DFARFI is that as a foundation, it cannot engage in profit-making ventures. This on the other hand is the advantage of a project afoot involving the DFA Cooperative. But the project offers less services than the DFARFI, but is a hedge should DFARFI’s fund run out.

Rising cost of living
I also called attention to the situation that retirees face as their twilight years move on. This concerns the increasing difficulty they have meeting the ever rising cost of living because their monthly pension is pegged to the salary item they occupied on retirement. The last batch of retirees is receiving a higher pension than the earlier batch because of the increases made in their items last year. Don’t be surprised, you of the last batch, if an older retiree declines your invitation to a restaurant date; he may likely be balancing off the costs of Uber fare and the food check with the joy of seeing you. In fact, the oldest living retiree may be receiving a pension lower than the current mimimum wage. The prospect of finding an old ambassador, humbled and reduced to rags by catastrophic events in his family, wandering around, begging bowl in hand, is not entirely an impossibility. I recalled dear Nene Zacarias, our Consul in Paris, who was a nun before she joined the Philippine foreign service just after World War 2. Maybe she found the foreign service then no different, salary-wise, from a religious vocation with a vow of poverty. We scholars in Paris would drop by the Embassy and we would go back to our dorm with a bag of dinuguan and puto or adobo from her. Fast forward to the time I saw her in retirement back in Manila. I asked her, “How is the pensionada?” She answered, “Ay, iho. It’s all gone in the blink of an eye. I used it up for the hospitalization of my sister.” It was maybe an instance of God’s mercy that she died very soon after that.

Various ideas have been tossed around to remedy the situation. The introduction of legislation similar to those benefiting the Armed Forces of the Philippines and justices of the Supreme Court is one. The UN system as a model is another. A member of Congress has volunteered to sponsor a one-shot increase in earlier retirees’ pensions. Maybe the DFA HRMO is the right office to frame a feasible measure to solve this true case of the vanishing pension.

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