SSS: Failure of Public Policy Reporting
CRITICISM RAINED on President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III for his veto of House Bill 5842 that sought to increase by PHP 2,000 the monthly Social Security System (SSS) pension. Given the current context – it’s election season and there are two million pensioners who are potential voters – Aquino’s executive action drew the ire of many citizens, not just the pensioners.
It was also something that many should have seen coming – if only government, Malacañang, SSS officials and legislators had given enough thought to the policy dilemma involved. There is an obvious need for a pension increase, especially for those retirees who have no other source of income. But the actuarial issue and the future of the fund had to be considered.
But the press also failed to do its job of reporting on the policy process by getting into the discussion of the bill before its passage. Instead, even before the Christmas holidays, the press focused on the public anticipation of the pension increase, and then, on the presidential veto. Before that, there was hardly any discussion about the bill, about the setting of the amount. There was barely any mention of the companion bill, House Bill 6112, which mandated an increase of SSS premiums. This is Exhibit A of the media’s repeated failure to cover public policy when it matters and before it becomes a crisis.
Early on, there should have been more reports discussing the issues surrounding the proposed pension hike. At the very least, the press should have followed the argument for and against the bill and produced reports on these.
Negative Response, Insufficient Reporting
The House of Representatives and the Senate passed HB 5842 in June and November 2015, respectively. The public and the legislators were enthusiastic about the bill, and for a good reason. After all, who wouldn’t want to raise the monthly pension of mostly elderly Filipinos, who have been receiving a pittance from the system for so long?
Unfortunately, President Aquino saw a problem that could result from the increase. In his veto message addressed to Congress on January 12, Aquino said the proposed pension increase would result in “substantial negative income for the Social Security System.” Subsequent reports and commentaries pointed out that an increase in the pensions of private sector retirees would end up bankrupting the SSS.
The media’s initial reports merely quoted Aquino’s statements as well as the negative responses of the public. These reports did not adequately discuss the basis for the veto. Instead, the press latched on to the political implications of the veto, particularly on how Aquino’s allies defended the decision and how it would affect the chances of administration presidential candidate Mar Roxas.
The coverage sounded as if the press was clueless about the reasons behind the veto, especially since the explanations came out only after the media briefing by the SSS on January 18 during which SSS president and CEO Emilio S. de Quiros Jr. attempted to explain why HB 5842 needed to be vetoed.
It was, de Quiros said, “irresponsible to implement the PHP 2,000 pension hike without an increase in member contributions,” as it would lead to the agency’s bankruptcy in 11 years. (“SSS chief: No pension hike under Aquino,”Philippine Daily Inquirer, January 19, 2015)
In the “Hot Copy” segment of ANC’s Headstart on January 20, de Quiros further explained SSS’s position by saying the SSS had told legislators in meetings in the middle of 2014 that the SSS can’t afford the increase, but that the lawmakers had countered that the government should try to subsidize the hike. The SSS, he said, wrote to the lawmakers to reiterate that the SSS cannot afford the increase.That is why, de Quiros said, the agency was surprised the bill passed despite their warnings.
The figures and other information given by the SSS officials in the media briefing might appear new but a quick research online would show that the data discussed by de Quiros, or at least parts of it, had already been mentioned in some reports as far back as August 2015. These were only mentioned in passing, often with hardly any explanation, in the media reports on the veto.
For example, in articles that reported Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile’s objection to HB 5842, figures concerning the fund life of the SSS, as well as the costs that must be met should the bill be passed into law, were only mentioned. (“Juan Ponce Enrile bucks higher SSS pension,”The Philippine Star, October 3, 2015)
Articles that did discuss the points raised during the SSS’ press conference were either contributed articles or opinion pieces, as in the case of a piece written by SSS commissioner Ibarra Malonzo published in the Inquirer’s “Talk of the Town” section (“Quick fix or sudden collapse,” September 6, 2015).
Aquino’s veto came as a surprise in part due to the president’s silence on HB 5842 even before it arrived at his office for signature. Hardly any story, if at all, raised the possibility of a veto or a threat of a veto.The points raised by de Quiros and other SSS officials are important but this should have been presented for the benefit of the public before, rather than after, the veto. The SSS and the vast information machinery of the administration failed the public.
But also to blame is the press for its superficial and reactive coverage of the bill. If the media had taken enough interest in the bill and tried to determine its implications if it became law, then the public wouldn’t have been so confused by contradictory claims, and stunned like the proverbial deer by oncoming headlights.