If you’re dreading this winter’s heating bills, take a deep breath. There’s good news.
The average cost of heating a home this winter is expected to be less than last year, except for homes using heating oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And if your budget still won’t stretch far enough, a lot of financial assistance is available from the government, utilities and nonprofit organizations. Plus, eligibility rules have changed to help people who lost jobs in the recession.
LIHEAP, prime source of assistance
The federal Low-Income Household Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, is the Godzilla of winter heating assistance. Money for LIHEAP originates with the federal government and is distributed to the states through grants. States often add additional funding, and they distribute the dollars.
For 2010, Congress allocated about $5.1 billion to LIHEAP, including $590 million in emergency funds that the program plans to tap soon. That “can serve about 7.5 million households,” says Mark Wolfe, the director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. Because of the weak economy and relaxed eligibility, he says, “millions of families that don’t normally ask for assistance could apply.”
Previously, assistance was available only to applicants whose income was no more than 60 percent of the median in their states, and that calculation was based on the applicant’s income over the past 12 months. This year, applicants are eligible if their income does not exceed 75 percent of the state median income or 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, whichever is higher. Many sources of assistance will look at only the past three months of applicants’ income. Allowable deductions from income could help people who have recently lost jobs or income to qualify for heating help.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides a median-income chart to help you figure out if you are likely to be eligible.
HHS also can point you to your state’s LIHEAP program, including the director’s name and contact information and the program’s website. On your state’s site, you can find an application for LIHEAP aid or instructions on obtaining one. See the end of this article for advice on filling it out.
Households with incomes up to twice the federal poverty guidelines may also be eligible to have their homes weatherized to reduce heating bills. The U.S. Department of Energy, working with the states, will send an energy auditor to decide if insulation, weather stripping or other measures will pay for themselves in energy savings.
If the answer is yes, the government pays service providers to complete the repairs or improvements.
For information on your state’s weatherization program, go the LIHEAP Clearinghouse’s page on state profiles and click on your state.
Utilities can often help
Although you may feel that calling your utility company about your payment problems is the last thing you’d ever want to do, these companies are familiar with such problems and offer many forms of help. It may surprise you to know that utilities really don’t want to disconnect your service.
“Disconnection is the least efficient way of dealing with a credit problem,” says Bill Crawford, manager of credit policy for American Electric Power, which serves customers in 11 states. “We encourage customers to contact us as soon as they are having trouble.”
Since the recession began in December 2007, “we’ve been talking to people who’ve always paid their bills on time, and now are having difficulty paying on time,” says Pat Boland, manager of credit policy and compliance for Xcel Energy, which operates in eight states. “So we shifted from credit guidelines indicating how much customers should pay. Now we interact with them on a more flexible basis.”
Here are some of the ways that utilities can help you:
- Grants from customer-contribution programs, with matches from the utility. These are typically administered by local social service organizations.
- Flexible payment plans. These include plans to deal with past-due amounts, to level out payments and eliminate seasonal peaks, or to provide discounts and quarterly payments to those who qualify.
- Special plans and do-not-disconnect rules. These are available in many states for households where any person is at least 62, has a disability or depends on electrical service for life-support equipment.
- Referrals to government and nonprofit agencies that can help you if the utility cannot.
There are two ways to get information on what help your utility can provide, as well as any utility assistance mandated by your state.
One is to go to the LIHEAP Clearinghouse online and select your state. Scroll to the “Utility” section to find details of state mandates regarding disconnections and special programs for seniors and those with disabilities or medical conditions requiring life-support equipment.
The second method is to call your utility’s customer service department. Be prepared to discuss your age if you’re at least 62, your financial situation and any medical condition that any person in your household has. Be open to options for catching up on overdue bills. Remember, your utility really doesn’t want to disconnect you and will usually offer you a number of options.
Many nongovernmental organizations play a big role in helping people with energy bills. In New Jersey, for example, NJ SHARES “helps people who are in a temporary financial crisis, such as a job loss or a medical emergency,” says Barbara Gomes, director of outreach and communications.
“New Jersey SHARES helps people with incomes of up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level who don’t qualify for other federal or state programs,” she says. Residents can receive an annual grant of up to $700 for heating with gas or electricity, or up to $300 just for power. NJ SHARES also helps those who heat with other fuels.
To find out about similar organizations in other states, go to the website for the LIHEAP Clearinghouse and select your state. Scroll down to “Emergency Charitable Assistance,” where you’ll find a list. Also, your utility company’s customer service department can suggest assistance organizations.
Thanks to the recession, many more people need help with heating bills this winter. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help. The sooner you reach out, the more options you’ll have to ensure that you and your family will stay warm this winter.
The LIHEAP application
Each state has its own LIHEAP application form, but the information required is the same. It is also very extensive, so plan to spend quite some time filling it out. If you need help, contact your state LIHEAP office—the public-inquiries number can be found on the website—where you’ll likely be directed to a local agency for in-person or telephone assistance.
Here’s what you’ll need to fill out the application:
- The names, Social Security numbers, birthdays, ages and student status of every person living in your household.
- Proof of all income of every person in your household, such as check stubs, bank records and income tax returns.
- A detailed description of your home or apartment, possibly including the number, size and type of rooms.
- Copies of utility bills to document heating costs. Include copies of bills back to Oct. 1, because in some cases you can be reimbursed for them. If you pay rent, and it includes heating costs, provide records.
- Documentation of expenses that your state may allow you to deduct from your income, such as medical insurance premiums, dental or vision care bills, nursing home costs, and prescription drug costs. Proof can include receipts or canceled checks.
The completed application can take 45 days to process. If you face an emergency, such as having your utility service disconnected, the application itself may explain what to do for immediate help. If not, call the public inquiry number on your state’s LIHEAP website or immediately contact your utility to discuss the situation.
If you are approved for assistance, you’ll be contacted by a state or local agency. Don’t expect to receive funds directly. Except for reimbursement of bills you’ve already paid, the dollars will go directly to your utility to help pay your heating bills.
Bridget Mintz Testa is a Houston-based writer who covers workforce issues and technology.
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