Friday, November 21, 2008

State Tells Suffolk County to Handle Energy Emergencies

Suffolk County
In Wednesday's post we noted several examples of problems in the administration of the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), SNAFU in OTDA's Administration of the HEAP Program, including limitation by Suffolk County of the opportunity to apply for HEAP. In response, a state official has told us:
we have contacted Suffolk County and have been assured that no applicants in an energy emergency situation are being turned away and that the emergency cases are their priority.
Our sources indicate that people with emergency situations were turned away after a set number of applicants had been handled in the Riverhead and Deer Park offices of the Suffolk County Department of Social Services. As a result they had to return the following day and were lining up outside before offices opened in the hopes of making their applications. So it is good news if indeed applicants in emergency situations are no longer being turned away.

It is still problematic if application appointments for Regular HEAP are being rationed and if applicants must make multiple visits to local welfare offices to apply. Generally, people who did not receive a HEAP grant last year must apply in person. See the OTDA web page on HEAP Applications.

Action on the Emergency Furnace Repair Case
We also noted on Wednesday a case where action had not been taken to address an October application for Emergency HEAP furnace replacement assistance for an 87 year old blind Albany woman who was living in the cold. According to a state official "the Albany County furnace issue has been resolved. Work to install the new furnace will begin tomorrow (Friday, 11/22)."

The State's HEAP Hotline
Finally, we pointed out problems with the state HEAP Hotline. According to the OTDA website, "Questions regarding the HEAP program should be directed to your County Social Services Office or to the NYS HEAP Hotline at 1-800-342-3009."

Last year, on occasions when we contacted state officials regarding cases where a county or utility seemed not to be following state HEAP program guidelines, we were told in the future to refer people to the Hotline. For example, we had noticed three incidents in which the same utility had not continued service to HEAP recipients for 30 days, as OTDA requires utilities to do by contract in its HEAP vendor agreements. We were told "please have these individuals call our HEAP hotline so we can help them."

We had assumed that a real person answers the State HEAP Hotline and would be available to intercede in such matters. The State is responsible for uniform administration of the HEAP program and for oversight of the 58 local social services districts (New York City and counties outside New York City) that administer the districts. [New York State is one of the few states that still relies on county welfare offices to administer the largely state and federal programs such as HEAP, Food Stamps, and Medicaid].

This year, we have learned, no real person answers the state HEAP Hotline. There is a set of prerecorded messages about the location of local HEAP offices, and eligibility. The voicemail system for finding the nearest office may ask the caller to leave a message. For persons having a problem with a local office, the Hotline has a recorded referral to the OTDA State Fair Hearing office.

Apparently there is no way, short of asking for an OTDA Fair Hearing, a lengthy and time consuming process, for an individual to bring to the attention of OTDA a problem or obvious error in a local social services district's administration of the HEAP program.

The HEAP Fair Hearing Process

The OTDA State Fair Hearing toll-free number is 800-342-3334; if that is busy, try 518-474-8781.

If there is an emergency, an "emergency" Fair Hearing can be requested. Even an "emergency" case will take considerable time. For New York City Emergency Fair Hearings only, call (800) 205-0110.

An OTDA State Fair Hearing can also be requested online at the OTDA website.

The OTDA website also has a printable form request for a Fair Hearing that can be filled out and faxed to the OTDA Fair Hearing Office FAX number: (518) 473-6735

No comments: