The SSS #Spinungaling

Inday Espina-Varona

Whoever thought of sending that pouting pretty boy to defend President Benigno Aquino’s veto of the P2000-SSS premium hike bill just increased Filipino’s anger over this administration’s perceived insensitivity to the needs of the nation’s working class.

SSS Commissioner Michael Victor Alimurung officially became the crown prince of TralalaLand when he announced at the start of a press conference that most executives of the agency are “pro-poor.” He followed that up with a hearty endorsement of Mr. Aquino’s veto:

“We support President Aquino's veto. Giving an across the board P2,000 pension hike will lead to SSS bankruptcy in 2027…

"Para sa akin, I would want a president who would do the right thing given the information he knows, no matter how unpopular that decision may be. I have full admiration that that is in fact what the President did."

WATCH: Head over heart: 'Pro-poor' SSS justifies veto on pension hike

He’s probably Mr. Aquino’s next-door neighbor in that parallel universe where words have different meanings. (Remember “suspension” and Alan Purisima and Mamasapano?)

The Aquino administration has just given pro-poor – and “moral” -- a whole new spin.

Pro-poor now means holding on to those bloated bonuses on the ground that these are “moral” despite Commission on Audit's (COA) repeated recommendations of disallowance. Moral means rewarding yourself for a performance that includes a very poor collection rate of 38% and a high operating ratio.

The COA 2013 audit report, which came out in November 2014, notes that delinguent employers account for uncollected contributions and fines worth P13 billion.

Aging Member Loans, meanwhile, amount to P64.01 billion, of which P19.407 billion represents loans outstanding for more than 5 years.

The SSS’s operating ratio – 11% of contributions – is way above Malaysia’s 2% and Singapore’s 0.5% (year 2007).

EASY FIX

The President vetoed a bill ratified by the House of Representatives and the Senate (which unanimously adopted Bayan Muna Neri Colmenares’ original bill) on grounds that a P2000 across-the-board pension hike would bankrupt the SSS fast. The same line is peddled by Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz, who says have a heart for the agency’s fiscal health.

What would it cost to fund the SSS pension hike?

Four billion pesos this year, or less than a third for those delinquencies chalked up by an agency that rewards its top officials with million-peso bonuses.

Four billion pesos is 6.4% of P64 billion; 20% of the more than five-year-old aging loans. It is but a fraction of an estimated almost half-a-billion pesos in disallowed bonuses that COA maintains must be returned.

And our moral and pro-poor SSS executives say improved collection is no answer to their fiscal woes.

The SSS airily dismisses the anti-poor charges hurled by disappointed netizens. Not all pensioners are poor, say its executives. Almost 16% of senior citizens are poor. It is true majority of the poor come from the informal sector and probably not covered by social security.

But think about this. Only a small fraction of the elderly are rich and not dependent on pensions to make their twilight years comfortable. Most are from the lower middle classes. They have medical costs to defray monthly. Philhealth benefits only cover hospitalization.

Even with the discounts for senior citizens, the cost of inflation over the past decade has outpaced the purchasing power of stagnant pensions. These SSS pensioners, by the way, also spent their productive years paying taxes to the government.

Mr. Aquino jeers that the SSS pension hike bill is nothing but a “papogi” stunt – a trick to make politicians more attractive to voters.

That’s rich, given the way this administration is throwing discretionary funds left and right to prop the chances of Mr. Continuity.

Once again, the President's below-zero emotional quotient is on display. He tries to to pit 2.3 million pensioners vs 31 million active members -- as if the pensioners do not have children who care for them among the active SSS members. As if active members do not appreciate the harsh realities faced by senior citizens. They do, because they live that same reality.

Here’s what Mr. Aquino conveniently left out: This bill was four years in the making. He should ask his allies in Congress about how the elderly patiently, persistently and noisily lobbied them for years. They swarmed Congress offices weekly. They would stop representatives on the corridors in their district rounds, anywhere they saw them.

He should ask Cerilo Araneta of Negros Occidental who went around Western Visayas collecting signatures from fellow senior citizens and regularly went to Congress to help with the national lobby.

Colmenares and other legislators from both chambers have long called for improvement in collections and the elimination of unnecessary expenses. And since that is not going to be enough – that much is true – then government should provide a subsidy coupled with stringent efficiency measures.

Mr. Aquino says he fears the wrath of SSS active members. But the still-working members resent not the pensioners but the agency's shameful inefficiency and its refusal to reform its clunky management of members' monies.

It is ironic when we hear SSS executives refer to this as an “easy fix”. In the first place, it’s the agency that has a penchant for the easy fix. The law calls on it to submit a study every four years to find ways to increase members’ pension. They’ve been delinquent on this, too.

The rare times people actually move to meet pensioners’ needs, government’s main response is to increase SSS premiums – and ignore the reforms it needs to install. And then it cites actuarial figures that, according to Colmenares, “are mathematical calculation of bankruptcy that presumes no subsidy or reform is undertaken."

Aquino apologists say the SSS is a government financial corporation and should not receive monies from the treasury, unlike, say the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) program.

That’s hogwash. Republic Act 8282 or the SSS Act of 1997, Section 20 and 21 mandates the government that it is its duty to fill up SSS shortfalls vis-a-vis the needs of pensioners.

If that is their version of “moral” and “pro-poor” – they’ve just given Filipinos a clear vision of what “continuity” means.