Meralco told to explain fee for paying bills online

MANILA, Philippines, May 20 ------ The Department of Energy (DOE) has launched another inquiry on the Manila Electric Co., this time on the “convenience fee” being charged when using Meralco’s mobile application to pay for electricity bills. Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi has directed Meralco to explain the convenience fee of P47 when paying for electricity bills using its mobile app after the DOE-Consumer Welfare and Promotion Office received numerous reports on the additional fee.

“We wrote Meralco, asking why there is a convenience fee charged to consumers on top of the electricity bill when using (its) app to settle their accounts,” Cusi said. “I’m also asking Meralco. I’m not passing any conclusions… but they engaged a third party at the expense of you and me,” he added. In his letter to Meralco president and chief executive officer Ray Espinosa, Cusi said the agency is supportive of progress and the use of technology to make customer relationships a pleasant and efficient experience.

Reports were received, however, that Meralco obliges the paying customer to use its app where consumers have to pay a fee of P47 per transaction. “Given the situation, the transaction fee consequently increases the electricity cost to the consumers, a clear deviation to all the government efforts to bring down the cost of utilities, especially during these difficult times,” Cusi said. Amid the enhanced community quarantine imposed in Luzon, Meralco has been encouraging customers to use online channels to settle their accounts.

It said multiple options for transactions have been offered by the distribution utility, including the Meralco Mobile App, Meralco Online and the Meralco authorized payment channels. In a statement, Meralco senior vice president and legal and corporate governance head William Pamintuan said the Meralco online app is one of the options provided to address customers’ clamor for a 24/7 payment option. “This is purely voluntary on the part of the customer and is just one of the many available payment options,” Pamintuan said.

The Meralco official also clarified that the company does not earn from the convenience fee in the app, which actually goes straight to its service provider for using the payment platform. “The online fees are not Meralco’s fees and do not accrue to Meralco, but are the fees charged by online payment service providers to those using their platform or system to transact online payments for their convenience,” Pamintuan said.

“Further, Meralco is not charging the online fees to its rates, as this will mean passing the burden to other customers who are not the beneficiaries of the online payment system. This will create cross subsidies not allowed by (the Electric Power Industry Reform Act). In the interest of fairness and transparency, only customers availing of our online payment system should be charged the online fees,” he added.

Cusi, however, said Meralco is still required to get government clearance on this kind of innovation. “Meralco is supposed to obtain authority from the government to do something like this. Apparently, your offices are justifying that you do not need to go through the government because this fee collection does not go to Meralco – that it goes to your app service provider,” the energy chief said.

“ln this regard, we would like your company to explain to us immediately the rationale of your new payment scheme and confirm if the above information is correct and approved by management. Likewise, we would like to question your intentions on this and your decision to time the introduction of this new process during this pandemic,” he said.

More probes vs bill shock

Meanwhile, more inquiries have been launched on the bill shock that Meralco customers encountered amid the enhanced community quarantine. The Senate committee on energy has received numerous complaints from many consumers on their high electricity bills. Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, who chairs the committee, said the problem lies with Meralco’s confusing electricity bill.

“Meralco has failed to provide Filipinos a clear and justified explanation on why bills have gone up so high,” Gatchalian said. “My office has started initial inquiries on whether or not Meralco has taken advantage of the current pandemic situation to the detriment of Filipino consumers,” the lawmaker added. The Joint Congressional Energy Commission, the country’s primary watchdog in the power sector composed of the Senate and House committees on energy, will also launch an inquiry on the Meralco bill shock.

Criminally liable

Meralco may be held criminally liable under Republic Act 11469, the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, for what has now been dubbed as “bill shock” that its residential customers experienced during the enhanced community quarantine. “The law empowers the President to enforce measures to protect people from hoarding, profiteering, manipulating prices or other practices affecting the supply and distribution of essential goods and services, including electricity,” House Deputy Majority Leader Bernadette Herrera warned.

The country’s largest power distributor may be held liable should it fail to “satisfactorily address” the bill shock experienced by its customers amid the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic, according to Herrera. “Meralco should be made to explain why it is not guilty of violating the law following the surge in the electricity bills of its customers while the country is under a state of public health emergency,” she said.

As one of the authors of RA 11469 in Congress, Herrera noted that the law grants President Duterte the power to adopt temporary emergency measures to respond to the crisis brought about by the outbreak. Meralco spokesman Joe Zaldarriaga explained that the March and all April bills were “estimated based on the past three months’ average daily consumption, following the Distribution Services and Open Access Rules (DSOAR) issued by the ERC.”

“The three months that were used as basis – December 2019, January 2020 and February 2020 – were considered ‘low consumption’ months as these were significantly cooler months compared with the summer months of March, April and May,” Zaldarriaga said. At the same time, he pointed out that “aside from these, the following factors may have affected customers’ May bill, including increased consumption during the quarantine, as everyone is at home.”