Malacañang officials scrambled to contain growing public indignation over the decision of President Benigno Aquino 3rd to veto the proposed P2,000 pension increase for Social Security System (SSS) pensioners, dismissing claims that the administration has no compassion for senior citizens.
Palace Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. and his deputy, Manuel Quezon 3rd, came to Aquino’s defense as condemnation and criticisms rained on Malacañang.
To calm ruffled feathers, Quezon said the Aquino administration has been taking care of
senior citizens for the past five years.
He cited, for instance, the mandatory PhilHealth coverage for senior citizens, which came into effect through amendments to the 2010 Expanded Senior Citizens Act signed by Aquino in June 2014.
Quezon said at least 4.8 million senior citizens were enlisted in the program under the amended senior citizens act.
He added that 937,556 senior citizens were granted “augmented social pension” from 2011 to May 2015.
“The age to qualify for indigent senior citizens’ pension went down. This means that from 2011 to 2014, the DSWD [Department of Social Welfare and Development] prioritized senior citizens aged 77 years and above,” Quezon said.
Senior citizens 65 years old and above were included in the program in 2015.
“So in that year alone, in 2015, 760,736 indigent senior citizens were served [by the government],” the Palace official said.
According to him, the administration authorized the five percent increase in the monthly pension of senior citizens starting May 31, 2014.
The pension fund, Quezon said, also increased the funeral benefits from a fixed amount of P20,000 to a maximum amount of P40,000 depending on the number of contributions and average monthly salary credit as of August 2014.
The SSS also put up a voluntary provident fund, called the Personal Equity and Savings Option (PESO) fund for SSS members to provide more avenues for retirement security, he added.
It also opened a P7-billion educational assistance loan program in 2012. As of June 2015, Quezon said, over P3.1 billion had been loaned to 67,299 qualified student beneficiaries.
To lessen the burden for pensioners, he added, the SSS implemented two penalty condonation programs in 2011 and 2012 allowing 406,421 delinquent members to once again join the SSS.
Coloma also defended the President’s action by pointing out that the welfare of the 31 million SSS members was given consideration over that of pensioners.
“In his message, President Aquino said the stability of the entire SSS benefit system, whose present membership comprises about 31 million individuals, will be seriously compromised in favor of two million pensioners and their dependents,” he noted.
Catholic bishops on Friday criticized Aquino for rejecting the pension increase, saying the President is insensitive to the plight of the poor pensioners.
But Quezon said the bishops will “be enlightened” if they learn all the benefits provided by the government to senior citizens and other SSS members.
“And I think the bishops will then be reassured that if only we take more time to understand the issues, then we will not only understand the issues but they are reassured na hindi naman pinapabayaan ang ating mga senior citizens [our senior citizens are not being ignored],” he added.
Also on Saturday, Rep. Roy Señeres of OFW party-list said the President spat on pensioners when he vetoed the pension hike bill.
“His purported reason of a multi-billion loss for SSS amid its inflow of revenues is a spit on the face of long-time Filipino workers, especially given the huge payments and bonuses reaped through the years by SSS executives,” Señeres added.
He was referring to the time when high-ranking SSS officials gave themselves millions in incentive bonuses.
The Commission on Audit records show that in 2014, the SSS failed to collect P8.168 billion from 97,366 employers.
This was lower than the P94 billion uncollected premiums from 164,111 delinquent employers in 2010.
Of that at least P102 billion uncollected SSS remittances, the SSS announced in September 2015 that it was able to collect P1.6 billion of SSS dues from delinquent companies in the past five years.
“Retirement benefits are tools supposed to protect our workers from income risks associated with old age… a small token they can provide themselves through their premium payments for their decades of hard work. These tools for social protection are anti-poverty measures,” Señeres, a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Commission, said.
“The President’s veto of the proposed P2,000 pension hike per retiree-beneficiary of the SSS shows the type of leadership a so-called daang matuwid [straight path]espouses–a pro-capitalist administration that puts social protection on the sidelines,” he added.
With LLANESCA T. PANTI