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Proposed Electric Disconnection Rule puts Public Utility Commission in Role of Bill Collector

AARP called “anticompetitive” and “very dangerous” a rule under consideration by the Public Utility Commission (PUC) that would prevent electric customers from switching to a new provider until the existing company “releases” the customer.

“There is no more fundamental right under Texas’ deregulated market than the right to switch providers,” said Bob Jackson, AARP Texas state director. “This proposed rule thwarts competition and essentially creates a debtor prison on behalf of electric companies, possibly with very dangerous consequences.”

According to the PUC, approximately 100,000 households have their electric service disconnected each month. Some of these are households with older people, sick people or children under the age of four. The Center for Disease Control cites these categories among those with the highest risk of heat related illness and death during hot weather.

Currently, PUC rules allow disconnected households to switch to a new provider to get their electricity service restored fairly quickly, while still under an obligation to pay their debt to the first company. Under the “switch-block” policy proposed by the PUC, households that have entered into a payment plan and get disconnected can be held captive by their retail electric provider until the entire outstanding amount is paid in full. If the PUC adopts a switch-block policy, electric customers whose electricity is cut for a day or two under the current policy will likely be without electricity for a significantly longer period.

“The proposed policy is both absurd and an overreach on the part of a Texas government agency,” Jackson said. ”We believe that the Commission lacks the authority to establish a rule that blocks a customer from choosing a new provider.”

Jackson added that given Texas’ weather, a longer disconnection period could be dangerous. “Each additional day a switch-hold keeps a customer disconnected puts vulnerable Texans at risk of injury or even death.”

A second rule being considered by the PUC came under AARP attack as another overreach of PUC authority, putting the agency square in between the relationship between doctors and their patients.

This proposed rule includes a section stating that a person diagnosed by a physician as being dependent upon an electric powered medical device to sustain life—such as a ventilator or heart pump—would not be eligible for special disconnection protections if such device has a battery back-up available in the market.

“This is the worst possible instance of a regulator and an electric company interfering in the relationship between doctor and patient,” Jackson said. “It is phenomenal that the PUC thinks it has the authority to ‘pull the plug’ or to play doctor in matters of life and death.”

“While AARP has made its fundamental concerns with the deregulated Texas electric market quite clear in the past, the PUC is making it even harder to judge its results by regularly interfering in the market to the detriment of consumers,” Jackson concluded.

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