Wednesday, November 19, 2008

SNAFU in OTDA's Administration of the HEAP Program

This week, two weeks after opening of the New York State Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), we are hearing of significant administrative problems:
  • Some Suffolk County Department of Social Services service centers put limits on the number of HEAP applications and turn away applicants when the quota is met. People have been lining up for assistance at 5 AM.
  • An 87 year-old blind woman in Albany who needs Emergency HEAP furnace replacement assistance has been cold and sleeping in her clothes for weeks now, with no action taken by Albany County Department of Social Services on her application, despite federal law and state rules requiring prompt action to resolve such an emergency.
  • The State's HEAP Hotline (1-800-342-3009) is simply not answering calls. Callers are asked to leave messages, which are not being returned.
The Right to Apply for HEAP and the Right of Eligible Applicants to Prompt Action to Resolve Home Energy Crises.
In the past we have heard of instances similar to what we have heard is happinging in Suffolk County. Other counties (notably Saratoga County and Monroe County) restricted the number of people who could apply for HEAP on any given day. People would form lines to apply, and would be turned away when an arbitrary limit on intake of new applications had been reached.

In a non emergency situation, the local district has 30 days to act on an application. There is no reason not to provide applications and let people file them, instead of lining them up outside the door and turning them away without providing the application forms or without allowing them to file forms they have filled out. Many applicants for HEAP are working people who cannot take time away from low-paying jobs to make repeat visits to the HEAP offices only to stand in line and be turned away.

In emergency situations such as utility shutoffs and empty fuel tanks, assistance to resolve an emergency must be provided to eligible HEAP households within 18 or 48 hours of their application depending on the gravity of the situation. Obviously, if people are not allowed to apply, the time to respond to the emergency never begins, and the protection of the law intended by Congress and the state legislature when they created the HEAP program is lost.

Federal Law
Federal law requires all states receiving LIHEAP assistance to operate a home energy crisis assistance program that receives applications during the state's program period, and which timely resolves emergency situations for eligible households within 18 or 48 hours after applications. The federal LIHEAP statute, 42 U.S.C. 8623, spells out what participating states must do regarding energy crisis assistance:

**** (c) Of the funds available to each State under subsection (a), a reasonable amount based on data from prior years shall be reserved until March 15 of each program year by each State for energy crisis intervention. The program for which funds are reserved by this subsection shall be administered by public or nonprofit entities which have experience in administering energy crisis programs under the Low-Income Energy Assistance Act of 1980 or under this Act, experience in assisting low-income individuals in the area to be served, the capacity to undertake a timely and effective energy crisis intervention program, and the ability to carry out the program in local communities. The program for which funds are reserved under this subsection shall--
(1) not later than 48 hours after a household applies for energy crisis benefits, provide some form of assistance that will resolve the energy crisis if such household is eligible to receive such benefits;
(2) not later than 18 hours after a household applies for crisis benefits, provide some form of assistance that will resolve the energy crisis if such household is eligible to receive such benefits and is in a life-threatening situation; and
(3) require each entity that administers such program--
(A) to accept applications for energy crisis benefits at sites that are geographically accessible to all households in the area to be served by such entity; and
(B) to provide to low-income individuals who are physically infirm the means--
(i) to submit applications for energy crisis benefits without leaving their residences; or
(ii) to travel to the sites at which such applications are accepted by such entity.
A practice of a local social services district, such as closing the window to applications during normal business hours appears to be contrary to (3), above, which requires applications to be accepted, and it frustrates the timely provision of aid to resolve crisis situations of eligible households it they cannot apply.

New York Social Services Law
The New York Social Services Law says very little about the substance of the HEAP program, which is mainly left to the Governor and OTDA, but does include a requirement mandating local social services districts to comply with the plan and regulations, and to implement the program in a manner designed to effectuate its purposes:
Social Services Law Sec. 97.2. Each social services district shall be required, in accordance with the state plan and federal regulations, to participate in the federal low-income home energy assistance program and to assist eligible households found in such districts toobtain low-income home energy assistance.
When counties make it hard for households to apply for assistance by artificially limiting the acceptance of new applications, and by creating the public spectacle of welfare waiting lines, this is contrary to the intent of the Legislature when it directed the State to participate in the federal LIHEAP program.

Official Regulations of the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance

State regulations require local social services districts to accept applications and to resolve promptly the emergency situations of eligible households:
393.1 (b) Each social services district shall administer HEAP in accordance with applicable Federal and State statutes and regulations, the federally accepted State Plan, the HEAP manual and applicable releases of the New York State Department of Social Services.

Section 393.3 Application.
(a) For purposes of the annual HEAP State Plan, the office will designate a specific period of time during which local districts must receive applications for HEAP benefits. If the office determines that sufficient program and administrative funds are available, the office may extend the period for receiving applications for HEAP benefits beyond the last business day of the specified time period. In the event that the office determines that there are insufficient program and/or administrative funds to continue receiving applications prior to the last business day of the specified time period, the time period for receipt of applications may be correspondingly shortened. Applications for emergency HEAP benefits will be accepted at least until March 15th of each program year. Applications for HEAP benefits must be received and recorded on the State-prescribed form or on a local equivalent form approved by the office. During the designated period of time that local districts receive applications, social services districts must:
(1) assure that no household is denied the opportunity to apply for HEAP;
A county that denies households the opportunity to apply for HEAP during the HEAP program period that began November 3 this year thus is failing to comply with the state regulations that have the force of law. The State OTDA, by looking the other way when program requirements are not satisfied, arbitrarily disregards its own regulations.

A refusal to accept applications frustrates the timely provision of aid in emergency circumstances:
Section 393.5 Decisions, appeal and fair hearing.
(a) Determinations of eligibility on applications for regular benefits must be made within 30 business days after the filing of such application. Determinations of eligibility for emergency benefits must be made expeditiously so as to protect the health and safety of the applicant household. Some form of assistance to resolve the energy crisis must be provided to an eligible household in a life-threatening situation no later than 18 hours after the filing of a completed application or within 48 hours if the household is not in a life threatening situation. The date of filing an application is the date of receipt by a designated county certifier of a signed, completed application on the State-prescribed form. The applicant must be promptly notified of the determination in writing.
When a County bars access of households to the HEAP application process, the right of an eligible household to emergency HEAP assistance that resolves a crisis within the 18 or 48 hour timelines is defeated.

Counties receive a generous allowance from the state for administration of the HEAP program. According to OTDA statistics, Suffolk County received $873,285 last year from the state to handle HEAP applications, and will receive even more this year due to the increased funding for the 2008 - 09 HEAP year that began November 3. One must question how Suffolk County is spending all this money if they are accepting only a small number of applications per day.

Further, we must question the degree of oversight provided by the State. In the State Plan for HEAP submitted by the Governor, and prepared by OTDA, New York answers a question about state fiscal oversight of HEAP administrative costs thusly:
How do you ensure good fiscal accounting and tracking of LlHEAP funds? (Please describe. Include a description ofhow you monitor fiscal activities.)

NYS OTDA utilizes fiscal and fund accounting procedures similar to those utilized by NYS OTDA and local social services districts in the administration of other income-tested assistance programs. Districts are provided with allocations for administration and for district payments, and claims are monitored by OTDA fiscal staff to ensure that allocation levels are not exceeded.
Parsing this, OTDA seems to represent that it makes sure that the local districts do not claim more administrative expenses that allowed by the State. Absent is any representation that the State is monitoring to see that the funds it gives to the local districts are actually spent on the direct administration of the HEAP program. Are counties are using part of their HEAP administrative funding allocation to provide indirect support of activities or expenses they would otherwise support with other local funds, and not assigning enough people to receive applications from households seeking HEAP assistance?

In any event, the spectacle of people lining up in the pre-dawn hours to wait for a limited number of HEAP application slots at local welfare offices must stop.

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