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The Department of Energy (DOE) asked Manila Electric Co. (Meralco), the country’s biggest power retailer, to explain issues related to payment of bills.

The energy department wants to know why customers pay a fee of P47 when paying their bills through Meralco Online, a platform accessible via a website or a mobile app.

The billing issues also have prompted the Senate to look into these matters following complaints from consumers about what they believe to be inordinately high charges, according to Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian.

In the House of Representatives, the opposition Makabayan bloc is calling for an inquiry into the “sudden big spike” in power bills.

The Energy Regulatory Commission earlier asked the power distributor to explain the bills.

Meralco app

“It has come to our attention that Meralco has launched an app to handle monthly billing payments by your customers,” Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi said in a letter on May 14 to Meralco president Ray Espinosa.

Cusi said his office had been receiving reports “that your system effectively obliges the paying customer to depart from existing payment arrangements, i.e. through banks, and now they have to go through your app for which they have to pay a fee of P47 per transaction.”

When sought for comment, Meralco senior vice president William Pamintuan explained that payment through Meralco Online was “purely voluntary on the part of the customer and is just one of the many available payment options.”

Aside from over-the-counter payments at Meralco business centers and various Bayad Centers, customers can pay their monthly bills online through the websites and mobile apps of various partner banks.

The apps or mobile wallets include coins.ph, GCash, Smart Money and PayMaya.

24/7 payment option

Pamintuan said Meralco Online was a payment option that was made available “to address customers’ clamor for 24/7 payment option.”

The lawyer added that the P47 fee did not go to Meralco’s coffers, since this was “charged by online payment services provider to those using their platform or system to transact online payments for their convenience.”

Cusi said Meralco should obtain authority from the government to roll out such an initiative.

“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,” Cusi 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,” he said.

“Likewise, we would like to question your intentions on this and your decision to time the introduction of this new process during this pandemic.’’

But the service was launched as early as September 2018, although it was more recently promoted as “a digital omni-channel” to facilitate and service consumer transactions during enhanced community quarantine.

Paperless billing

As of March 31, Meralco Online had more than 719,000 active accounts.

Among these users, about 26,000 have opted for paperless billing subscriptions — they can receive their monthly bills by email.

Responding in February to a user’s criticism of the P47 fee on Twitter, Meralco said the amount was set by its “card networks (e.g. Visa, Mastercard, etc.) and it’s payment partner PayMaya, to follow online payment Asia-Pacific standards.”

PayMaya, like Meralco, is part of the MVP (Manuel V. Pangilinan) group of companies.

 

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