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The NEAR hotline is maintained by the LIHEAP Clearinghouse, a program of the US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. It is not affiliated with the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance.

 

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Rushing to Beat the Shut-Offs: March 2016 LIHEAP News Wrap Up

Writing and reporting by Jake Brown

 

With notices going out across the country that moratoriums were due to expire on tens of thousands of LIHEAP-eligible households, the alarm was sounded by officials in Pennsylvania, appealing to those families to apply for assistance through the program while the window was still open, with Governor Wolf dispatching his DHS Secretary Ted Dallas to “encourage anyone who still needs help with heating costs to apply in these final days of the LIHEAP season,” reminding citizens of the state that over 400,000 households were helped in 2015, including “older Pennsylvanians, children, and individuals who live with a disability.”

 

In an effort to combat exposure by another vulnerable constituency – and in fact its largest across the country – to the threat of facing a shut-off once moratoriums end, DHS announced this month a “multi-faceted initiative” to “improve access to information on long-term supports and services” for Seniors.  Secretary of Aging Teresa Osborne, clearly seeing a need to respond to the ironic and all-too-common dilemma among families not taking advantage of program assistance as a consequence of not knowing it was available to begin with, reasoned that the move was necessary to “extend our availability beyond typical office hours and will better support individuals who prefer to do their own research on available long-term services and supports…These efforts further demonstrate our commitment to serve as a highly visible, accessible, and trusted resource for information intended to link persons with disabilities and older Pennsylvanians with the help and support necessary to age in place.”

 

In a clever move designed to side-step the common stigma that contributes to first-time families who need assistance from ever applying because of pride, the Secretary added that “in the first phase, Pennsylvanians can use the IRT anonymously to input information about themselves, a loved one, or client. The IRT will guide them through a series of questions, then provide a list of resources…COMPASS is an online application where people can apply for many health and human service programs, such as Medicaid, cash assistance, or Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). With the COMPASS improvements, Pennsylvanians can submit applications for long-term living services and supports or request services for intellectual disability services, autism services, and early intervention services.”

 

Iowa’s Capital Digest, meanwhile, sent out a stern warning from the Iowa Utilities Board “customers who receive energy assistance customers to contact their local utilities to avoid electric or natural gas service disconnection once the winter heating moratorium ends next month. Iowa’s winter home heating moratorium protects customers certified for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), from electric or natural gas service disconnection fromNov. 1 through April 1. Beginning Monday, April 4, energy assistance customers could be subject to service disconnection for unpaid bills with proper notice by their local utility companies. Customers that currently are protected under the LIHEAP or Weatherization Assistance programs, and are having difficulty paying their energy bills are being advised to contact their local utilities before April 1 to discuss payment options or arrange for a payment agreement to avoid potential service disconnection.”

 

Down in neighboring Illinois, The Chicago Crusader highlighted the Northern Indiana Public Service Company’s effort to help (vulnerable) families avoid the threat of disconnection, quoting Business Office and Energy Assistance Manager Kim Ferrell’s acknowledgement that while “this winter’s combination of mild temperatures and low natural gas prices helped keep bills relatively lower this year, but we know that some of our customers still experience difficulties paying their bill, and we remind anyone, regardless of their situation, that options may be available to assist them.”

 

Spotlighting some efforts in the extra mile the utility travels to try and meet the needs of these struggling households, NIPSCO outlined several of its LIHEAP-extension initiatives, including the NIPSCO Customer Assistance for Residential Energy (CARE) Discount Program, where Ferrell explained that “in addition to the assistance available through LIHEAP, the NIPSCO CARE Discount Program is designed to provide further bill reductions to LIHEAP-eligible customers. Once enrolled in LIHEAP, customers are automatically enrolled in the program, and reductions range from 11 to 26 percent, depending on the same criteria used by the state in determining the level of assistance. CARE discounts are available through May 31, 2016, or until funds are exhausted.”

 

The manager additionally highlighted the “NIPSCO Hardship Program: For customers just outside the federal poverty guidelines for LIHEAP, the NIPSCO Hardship Program offers up to $400 in gas bill assistance to households between 151 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Hardship funds are available through many of the same local Community Action Agencies where LIHEAP funds are distributed and are available through May 31, 2016, or until funds are exhausted; the Township Trustees: A limited amount of energy assistance funds are available through local Township Trustee offices. Last year, approximately $1.2 million was distributed to help nearly 7,000 customers. NIPSCO customers are encouraged to contact their local Township Trustee to see what help is available; and the ongoing availability of Payment Arrangements: A NIPSCO credit agreement allows you to make an initial payment within five days of the agreement, then spread the remaining unpaid balance over three months, plus current bills as they are due.”

 

Next door in the Buckeye state, Columbia Gas of Ohio announced its “Columbia Cares” initiative, noting that “in 2015, more than 120,000 Columbia Gas of Ohio customers received an average of $270 in assistance with their natural gas bill.”  Noting that “energy assistance funding for Ohio has decreased 41.5% from 2010 to 2015…(and) more than 72% of eligible households have not been served,” Columbia Gas took the fight on behalf of their customers all the way toWashington D.C. in March, reporting that “Columbia Cares…is…taking an active role in LIHEAP Action Day 2016. A contingent of employees are on Capitol Hill today along with other utilities, local community action agencies and community advocates to support the need to increase current funding levels for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).”

 

Visiting the Nation’s capital for the same cause, The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association made a special trip to Capitol Hill earlier this past month to speak up along with the rest of the army of energy assistance advocates on behalf specifically of the rural LIHEAP landscape they serve, with NRECA C.E.O. Jeffrey Connor noting that the program provides a vital service throughout “electric cooperatives serve 93 percent of America’s persistent poverty counties, making co-ops acutely aware of LIHEAP’s importance and the need for full funding.”

 

Heading into the South, the Courier Journal ran the welcome headline that the deadline for emergency assistance had been extended for Louisville proper and throughout the state, wherein “The previous deadline of March 31 was recently pushed back to April 30 by the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which administers the program through a network of 23 Community Action Agencies across the state.”  Commenting on why such an extreme action was necessary, Eric Friedlander, Director of Louisville Metro Community Services, emphasized in response that “it’s important for those who need this help to apply now because funding is limited.”

 

Back in one of the Northeast’s most historically hard-hit winter weather states, Massachusetts’ own Worcester Telegram & Gazette reported a positive predicament for LHEAP-dependant households where, while traditionally, “allocation amounts factoring in fuel prices, demand and, to some extent, weather, LIHEAP is particularly important for low-income residents in New England – a region famous for both cold winters and high utility costs,” this spring, “with temperatures low and snow banks high last winter, many low-income households saw their fuel assistance benefits melt away long before the ice, but with temperatures now high and the price of oil low, that assistance might outlast the earliest spring flowers.”

 

Confirming that indeed, “in a winter like last winter, we would see them start to run out of funds around this time,” Peterson Oil Vice President Kristen Peterson Halus revealed in contrast, for 2016, “we’ve seen less of that. … I wouldn’t be surprised if we had some (allocated) funds left over.”  This prediction was further bolstered by The Worcester Community Action Council Director of Energy Resources Mary Knittle’s (report) that applications for assistance were down 8% in January of this year, translating to a relief for “a lot of people…(who) spent the winter thinking the shoe was going to drop suddenly.  Now it’s March and they are like, maybe we dodged a bullet.”

 

 

Sources:

http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/pa-wolf-administration-reminds-pennsylvanians-to-apply-for-home-heating-assistance-program-300243594.html
http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/local/2016/03/23/deadline-extended-emergency-assistance/82176046/
http://chicagocrusader.com/bill-assistance-available-nipsco-customers-march-15/
http://globegazette.com/news/iowa/iowa-capitol-digest/article_a1b7cd37-f443-5faf-a2fc-b4cbbb9e1e23.html
http://www.ect.coop/public-policy-watch/legislation/liheap-action-day-push-for-4-7-billion/90018
http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/pennsylvania-launches-pa-link-to-community-care-300241201.html
http://www.elkharttruth.com/hometown/elkhart/2016/03/14/Gas-utility-moratorium-set-to-expire-Tuesday.html
http://www.telegram.com/article/20160313/NEWS/160319584
http://www.westmonroechamber.org/news/details/entergy-louisiana-advocates-for-more-energy-assistance-for-low-income-customers-liheap-action-day-i
http://www.wave3.com/story/31452019/liheap-provides-for-jefferson-county-residents-in-need
https://www.columbiagasohio.com/about-us/news-room/news/2016/03/02/making-basic-comforts-a-reality-for-those-in-need

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