Heat wave: federal program to help needy pay cooling bills is broke

Budget cutting means that the federal fund for helping needy Americans pay higher electric bills in the winter and summer had already run out of cash before the current heat wave hit.

Sue Ogrocki/AP
Barbara Nusz sits in front of her new fan after receiving it from Aging Services of Cleveland County, Okla. Broiling hot conditions are expected to continue in Oklahoma and much of the south, and the elderly are especially susceptible to heat related health problems.

Robert “Bo” Chilton, who heads a social service center in Columbus, Ohio, noticed an ambulance outside his office this week. When he spoke to his staff, he found out that an elderly man and woman had both collapsed from heat exhaustion as they trudged to the center in the 90 degree heat.

Then Mr. Chilton heard why they were destined for his office: they needed help paying their electric bills, which spiked this month – on account of the heat.

The federal government sends states around $5 billion a year to subsidize low-income households’ heating and cooling bills. The government also reserves several hundred million dollars more, which it can distribute to states during weather emergencies, such as the heat wave that is currently scorching large swaths of the country.

But this year’s federal budget slashed that emergency reserve by about two-thirds, from $590 million down to $200 million. By the time the heat wave arrived this month, the pool of emergency energy assistance money was empty.

“The administration has no tools to use,” says Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, which represents the state administrators of the federally funded energy-assistance program.

Air conditioners and large fans can keep the summer heat at bay – but they also guzzle electricity and cause utility bills to soar. Unable to pay for power without government support, some low-income families and seniors try to brave the heat without fans or A/C.

“There’s no reason for anyone to become sick or die because of bills,” says Mr. Wolfe.

Temperatures in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and several other states reached record July 22 highs on Friday, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).

Older Americans are more likely to take medications that limit their ability to adjust to heat and to live on fixed incomes, which discourages some from keeping cool, says Randy Wexler, a physician and professor at the Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio.

In Columbus, the center where the elderly couple was headed when they collapsed, called IMPACT Community Action, uses federal energy assistance funds to help low-income households pay their electric bills. This summer, the center has given out 136 one-time grants of $175 each.

“It protects them through the summer months,” says Cheryl Grice, IMPACT’s director of emergency assistance. “Basically, the assistance helps to keep their utility service on.”

The federal government stipulates that the income of households that receive the energy assistance money must be no greater than 150 percent of the federal income level or 60 percent of the state median income. While the money is mainly meant to go toward heating and cooling bills, states can also use it for related programs, such as distributing free air conditioners.

A program in New York uses some of the federal energy-assistance money to provide free air conditioners to low-income households where at least one member has a health condition aggravated by extreme heat.

In New York City, during the first two weeks of the program, 4,500 people applied for 2,400 available air conditioners, says Olga Souto, a director at the Community Environmental Center, a nonprofit organization contracted to direct the air-conditioner program in the city.

“I’m sure we’re saving a lot of people’s lives,” says Ms. Souto, who added that a large share of the applicants were elderly. The center is no longer accepting applications.

Meanwhile, many elderly Americans in New York and around the country may bring in too much money each month to qualify for cooling subsidies – but barely enough to stay cool.

“I’m over what they allow by a couple of bucks,” says Annette Fields, a retired social worker who lives in Manhattan and has applied for energy assistance grants in the past.

Because she can’t afford an air conditioner for her apartment, Ms. Fields spends most days at a senior center near Times Square. There she paints, crochets, and plays piano – until it’s time to go home.

“You have to cut corners,” Fields says. “You might need an A/C, but it’s too much money.”

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