Friday, January 30, 2009

Slow Processing of Applications for HEAP Benefits; OTDA Receiving Comments on Next Year's HEAP Program

The 2008 – 2009 heating season was supposed to be better than this.

The federal government increased funds for the LIHEAP program to assist families to keep their homes warm. New York will receive over $476 million in LIHEAP funding for this winter, about $120 million more than last year, but something else is afoot.

We previously reported on incidents regarding how the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance and some county Departments of Social Services allowed roadblocks in the way of applicants seeking HEAP benefits. See SNAFU in OTDA's Administration of the HEAP Program; State Tells Suffolk County to Handle Energy Emergencies; Unmanned HEAP Hotline Fails to Serve the Blind.

Because of recent job losses and high fuel prices, this year many people are seeking HEAP assistance for the first time. They are facing the daunting task of seeking assistance at local welfare offices and winding their way through the labyrinth known as state government without inside knowledge of how the system works.

We are hearing from numerous HEAP applicants that even when they find someone to watch their children and are able to make it through the cold and the snow down to the county DSS office, they are being turned away because the local office has already processed its “quota” for the day. In one county, we heard, the office quota is only one application a day.

Some applicants previously received Regular HEAP that was insufficient to meet their high bills, and they are now seeking Emergency HEAP benefits because they have received a disconnect notice or are dangerously low on heating fuel and have no alternative arrangements available. Applicants who qualify for the phone-in process for Emergency HEAP are turned away when they apply in person and told to call. But when they called, they did not get through, did not receive callbacks or any response at all, adding to further stress and near panic as exhaustion of fuel or deadlines for imminent termination of utility service approach. In some situations, persons who applied in November had received no action on their applications for Regular HEAP, and were facing emergency situations.

PULP’s intervention at OTDA and the PSC resulted in positive results for those who contacted us, but systematic changes which would assure timely acceptance of and decisions on HEAP applications continue to be lacking.

On paper, the HEAP process should have been so much better this year. . . .

First of all, the state has authorized a $100 regular benefit increase for households paying directly for heat. In addition, the income guidelines for the HEAP Emergency component have increased from 60 percent to 75 percent of the state median income or 150 percent of the federal poverty guideline, whichever is greater. Also, a second HEAP Emergency benefit is available for eligible low income households to assist in meeting their emergency heat or heat-related needs and the criteria for eligibility remain the same as for the first HEAP Emergency benefit. Applicants must be in an energy emergency situation, which is defined as having less than a quarter tank of fuel, less than a 10 day supply of wood, coal, pellets, or having heat-related utility service terminated or scheduled for termination. In addition, applicants must have available resources less than the benefit amount.

Here are the specific benefit and income thresholds from OTDA.

More must be done to improve administration of the HEAP program to ensure timely acceptance, processing of applications, and receipt of grants by all eligible applicants because, if anything, the need for HEAP and other public assistance benefits are likely to only increase in the coming years.

Under federal law, there should be no restriction or quota on the number of persons who can make applications for HEAP, applications for Regular HEAP must be decided within 30 days, and applications for Emergency HEAP must be acted upon within 18 or 48 hours, depending on severity of the crisis. Counties should not have the ability to limit the number of applications received and processed. Without administrative reforms, there is increased risk of more tragedies like what happened in Michigan earlier this week.

There is an opportunity for the public to have a say in the process. OTDA is seeking comments as it begins to develop the 2009 – 2010 New York State HEAP Plan now, but the comments must be submitted to them by February 13th.

Lou Manuta

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