Monday, July 30, 2007

OTDA Receives Input at Hearings on Draft HEAP Plan for 2007 - 2008

On July 30, 2007 the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) held a hearing in Albany to receive public comments on the Draft HEAP plan for 2007 - 08. Approximately 984,910 low income New York households received benefits totaling $227.5 million for the 2006 - 2007 program year which ended May 15, 2007. The majority of New York's HEAP assistance funds are paid to utilities by local officials on behalf of eligible low income households. Except for the furnace repair/replacement element, New York's HEAP program normally closes when federal funds are exhausted.

At the $1.5 billion federal funding level requested by President Bush, New York stands to receive approximately $187.5 million, a $40 million decrease. Taking inflation into account, the real value of the administration's requested national funding level is 39.1% lower than it was in 1982. Efforts are underway in Congress to increase the national funding level in the federal budget bill.

The 2007 - 08 program will begin on November 1, 2007. Due to the reduced funding level requested by the President, the Draft Plan tentatively closes the program on March 31, 2008.

PULP and others previously provided comments in the HEAP needs assessment process, and to the HEAP Block Grant Advisory Committee on aspects of the Plan for 2007 - 2008. See PULP Urges Changes in Furnace Replacement Component of State Home Energy Assistance Program

At the July 30 hearing in Albany, PULP presented testimony making several recommendations regarding the state's Draft HEAP Plan for 2007 - 2008. These include
  • Targeting energy assistance payments to households with high energy burdens
  • Increasing the portion of crisis assistance (and decreasing the portion for regular assistance)
  • Requiring "Energy Star" certified appliances to be used in the crisis assistance program
  • Eliminating a restriction that bars furnace repair/replacement for otherwise eligible households buying their homes via a contract for deed, and
  • Clarifying in vendor agreements that a utility must promptly provide service when an emergency HEAP grant commitment is made by a local social services district.
The last recommendation is particularly important when utility service is off and crisis assistance is urgently needed to alleviate unsafe conditions. See Candle Fires: A Symptom of "Rolling Blackouts" Affecting Low-Income Households.

The Public Service Commission (PSC) in recent years has not been requiring utilities to restore service upon receiving notice from local social services officials that an Emergency HEAP payment will be made. Utilities have taken the position that they can refuse the payment and not restore or continue service.

In response, the PSC has only exhorted utilities to restore service and to minimize the number of cases where they insist on more than a HEAP payment, which may be several hundred dollars. The effect of this is tacitly to authorize the utilities to refuse to restore service despite the proffer of an Emergency HEAP payment

Previously, an Emergency HEAP payment was deemed by the PSC to be a sufficient change of circumstances to require the utility to enter into a new payment agreement for the balance of arrears uncovered by the HEAP grant, even if a prior agreement had been broken by the customer.

As a result, emergency situations with heat and power off may now be prolonged, even after a county social services office awards an Emergency HEAP grant.

The PSC noted this issue in a 2004 order in a case investigating the death of a customer whose service was not turned on, where the agency's staff found that the “County DSS provided [the customer] with a Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) grant, [but the utility] refused to accept that grant as the sole basis for turning on gas service because of . . . past arrears.”

In the absence of legislation to address the situation, the problem can be addressed in the vendor payment agreements, under which the utilities receive scores of millions of dollars directly from departments of social services. Utilities, however, have resisted making firm commitments in the vendor agreements with social services officials to restore service when an Emergency HEAP grant is authorized.

As a result of this clash, New York state's compliance with federal statutory time lines for resolving emergencies with 48 hours, or 18 hours in life-threatening situations, is jeopardized.

Further hearings will be held in New York City on July 31, 2007, and written comments will be accepted through August 3, 2007. Eventually, a final plan will be submitted by the Governor to the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

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