Sherman and Karen Gross were just getting by when her warehouse work hours were cut.
Then she had a stroke and her short-term disability payments didn't cover their bills. The Windsor Mill couple eventually owed the gas and electric company almost $4,000, and the utility cut off their power in April for not paying the bill.
"It was shocking," said Sherman Gross, 62, a retired paper factory worker who relies on Social Security disability and a small pension check. "I worked two jobs all my life, never asked for nothing, followed the rules."
With diabetes and a heart condition, Gross relies on electric fans to cool the house so he can breathe comfortably in the summer. If the power had been cut during a summer heat wave, "that would've been horrible," said Karen Gross, 44. "When it's really hot, it's like he can't catch his breath. He swells up, especially his feet and legs."
AARP Maryland supported a new Maryland Public Service Commission regulation that offers some protection for consumers. Under the rule, gas and electric companies must check the 72-hour weather forecast before disconnecting a customer for nonpayment. If the temperature is expected to be 95 degrees or higher (or 32 degrees and lower in the winter), the utility cannot turn off the power.
"The reason a household in Maryland faces disconnection is because energy is unaffordable and they have fallen behind on payments," said Hank Greenberg, AARP Maryland director of advocacy. "For those who fall behind on payments and face disconnection, protections such as the 72-hour rule will help prevent illness and death during extreme weather."
The old, the young and people with chronic disease are most likely to suffer during extreme weather, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says air conditioning is the best protection against heat-related illness and death.
A record 8.8 million U.S. households sought assistance with energy bills in 2009, according to the National Energy Assistance Director's Association (NEADA). In Maryland last year, 80,000 customers were on the verge of cutoff when the state imposed a temporary moratorium.
Before the rule change, Maryland utilities could turn off power during any 24-hour period of normal temperatures. The new rule prevents companies from disconnecting customers during the only mild day in a 72-hour stretch of extreme weather.
"This is really important in a state like Maryland, since many of our consumers can suffer heat-related illnesses if they lose their access to electricity in the summer months," said Paula Carmody, with the Maryland People's Counsel. "It doesn't solve the problem of people's difficulties over payments, but it's another tool."
The Maryland Office of Home Energy Programs will distribute $94 million in energy aid this year.
People often try to trim energy costs in ways that threaten their health or home. A 2009 NEADA survey found that 33 percent of energy assistance recipients used their kitchen stove or oven for heat, 26 percent kept their home at an unhealthy or unsafe temperature, and 8 percent used candles or lanterns for light.
When the Grosses lost electricity, the food in their refrigerator went bad and it took a full week to restore power—after the Office of the People's Counsel helped them find government financial aid. On top of the physical discomfort and inconvenience, they felt anxious and humiliated. "I will never go through this again," Sherman Gross vowed.
Those struggling to pay utility bills should check first with the Office of Home Energy Programs to see whether they qualify for assistance at 800-352-1446. If your household is ineligible for their programs, contact the Office of the People's Counsel at 800-207-4055.
Katherine Lewis is a freelance writer based in Maryland.