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.