US heating bills up, but federal aid down

Even before the latest spate of arctic conditions gripped the northern half of the nation, many states were running out of money to help the disadvantaged with their heating bills.

In West Virginia, the doors to the state's energy-assistance program have been closed for a month. Iowa has sliced its heating-assistance benefit by 30 percent. And in Montana, the director of the state's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) has personally fielded 50 to 100 phone calls from residents who want to know why their checks are so much smaller than last year's.

"They are asking me what's happened," says the director, Jim Nolan.

What's happened is that the number of people requiring energy-bill assistance has grown at the same time that Congress and the White House have cut funding by nearly $1 billion from last year. The combination has quickly rippled to the states, and at least seven are either completely out of money or will be shortly.

With benefits pared, concern is mounting that many people will start to receive notices that their utilities will be shut off on April 1 unless they pay their bills. To help out, some states are dipping into funds that would normally be used to help with summer cooling bills.

"There are health issues involved here," says Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association (NEADA) in Washington. "Some elderly turn their thermostats down too low, afraid of having to pay high bills."

On Feb. 20, 38 US senators signed a letter to the White House asking President Bush to release about $200 million in emergency contingency funds to meet "additional energy-related needs from the extended cold wave which has covered much of the nation...."

In reply, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says it is "monitoring" the weather to determine the appropriate time to release funds. "The way the information comes to us, we will not have the data to know the extent of the crisis for another few days," says Josephine Robinson, director of the US Office of Community Services, which is part of HHS. "We're still in the midst of a cold sweep, so we want to make sure we capture enough information to make sure money goes to the appropriate places."

For example, some states still have money left over from last year when funding was hiked to reflect soaring energy prices, she says.

The request for an emergency release of funding follows an estimate this week by the Energy Information Administration that raises the cost of winter heating from $873 to $898 per household, reflecting higher energy prices and the continued cold snap.

Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee held hearings on the president's HHS budget request, which includes a further reduction of $320 million in LIHEAP funding for fiscal year 2008. The idea is to move more money into a contingency fund, Ms. Robinson says.

But advocates for LIHEAP funding are concerned about the impact of a further reduction in aid. They point out that the number of people using the program is expanding, with some 5.6 million people receiving help this year compared with 5.1 million last year and 4.2 million in 2002.

The 2007 reduction in funding is already straining many state programs. In Delaware, the state has used up the money it had set aside to help low-income people pay for summer air conditioning.

"It can be really dangerous because the elderly won't run their air conditioners because they are afraid they can't pay their bills, and some children with asthma have to have air conditioning," says Leslie Lee, who administers the program.

West Virginia ran out of funds about a month ago, but it just received notice it will get some additional funds, so it will reopen its doors on Monday. But public demand is expected to be so strong that Dan Hartwell, who manages the program, says, "We'll be lucky to get through the end of March."

Jerry McKim, who runs the program for Iowa, has had to use money that he normally uses in the summer to prepurchase propane, when it is less expensive. If the president's 2008 budget request is approved, Iowa's program would have $16 million less for next winter, he says.

"We will have to turn a lot of people away because there is a point where if I gave everyone $100, it would serve no one," Mr. McKim says. "Here, our most vulnerable citizens routinely forgo basic necessities to keep up with utility costs."

Take the Clements family of West Des Moines. At the moment, neither Mary Clements nor her daughter Susan, who has a 3-year-old son, is working. This year, the state reduced their LIHEAP check by about 30 percent to some $320, down from about $450 last year.

The Clements family has felt the pinch. "We've had to not pay other bills, not go out to eat, and not use as much gas for our van," says Mary Clements. "Clothes and shoes for my grandson we just had to postpone. But my mother taught me to pay my bills on time, so I always pay the heating bill."

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