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Testimony on DHS’s Proposed FY 2018 LIHEAP State Plan

Energy

Testimony on DHS’s Proposed FY 2018 LIHEAP State Plan

Date Posted: 
07/05/2017

Maripat Pileggi, Staff Attorney in CLS's Public Benefits Unit, delivered the following testimony at Philadelphia's public hearing on DHS’s proposed LIHEAP state plan on July 5, 2017.

Community Legal Services provides free legal services to low-income Philadelphians.  We represent thousands of clients every year who are faced with unaffordable energy bills and utility shutoffs, and who must access Department of Human Services (DHS) benefits in order to access food and health care, and keep safe, warm shelter. Our work brings us into daily contact with the urgent issues of energy affordability and access to benefits faced by so many residents of Philadelphia.  I am testifying today on DHS’s proposed LIHEAP State Plan on behalf of CLS’s clients.

My testimony today will focus on the drastic cuts DHS has proposed for the upcoming LIHEAP season.  CLS will be submitting our full written comments on the entire proposed LIHEAP State Plan by July 14.

I have been an advocate for LIHEAP recipients for over 10 years.  In those 10 years, I have never seen a proposed LIHEAP State Plan as dangerous as this one and DHS’s proposal to delay the opening of LIHEAP until November 27, almost a full month after the typical November 1 opening date, is the most dangerous proposal of them all.  It presents a dramatic change from previous years that will cause harm for thousands of Pennsylvania families. We very strongly urge DHS to open LIHEAP no later than November 1.

People do not apply for LIHEAP on November 1 just because this is when the LIHEAP season usually opens.  People apply for LIHEAP on November 1 because by November 1 the cold weather has set in, energy bills are up, and utility termination notices are rampant.  Thousands of families struggling to make ends meet will receive utility termination  notices in November, the month before the December 1 start of the moratorium on utility shut offs.  Thousands more will use the little fuel oil they have left in their tanks from last winter to make it through the first cold days of the year.  Without LIHEAP’s help in November, many thousands of people, including seniors and kids, will lose heat in their homes and they will suffer in the cold.   

DHS’s own data show the significant need for LIHEAP in November.  DHS data show that over 100,000 families applied for LIHEAP between November 1 and November 25 last year and over 85,000 families received LIHEAP over the same time period.  More than 84,000 of the people who received these November grants were people with disabilities.  More than 70,000 were seniors.  And more than 24,000 were young children under age 6.  If DHS cuts off these vulnerable people from LIHEAP at one of the most critical times of the year, people will lose heat in their homes and there will be life-threatening consequences. 

When families lose heat in their homes when it’s cold outside, they are sometimes forced to resort to unsafe heating sources.  Kerosene heaters and open stoves put families and entire neighborhoods in danger.  Carbon monoxide poisoning and fire lead to property damage, homelessness, injury, and sometimes death.   The Public Utility Commission reported that 1,500 Pennsylvania families had no utility service in their homes and were using unsafe heating sources in December 2016.  This number will be much bigger in December 2017 if people do not have LIHEAP’s help to keep safe, reliable heating sources in their homes in November.

If DHS goes through with its proposal, there will be high demand for immediate access to LIHEAP when LIHEAP’s doors finally open on November 27.  All of the people who lost heat during early November without LIHEAP’s help to avoid the loss of heat, and all the people who will be facing an imminent loss of utility service in the few days before December 1 will need LIHEAP right away.  Many will be applying for Crisis grants.  The County Assistance Offices must process those Crisis applications within 48 hours.  We are deeply concerned that the County Assistance Offices will be unable to meet the crushing demands of a month’s worth of LIHEAP applications over the course of just two days.  

It was just a few years ago that DHS was struggling with LIHEAP application backlogs.  Some people waited up to 6 months for their applications to be approved, which is 6 times longer than what the law allows.  DHS has made great improvement in LIHEAP application processing times since then but now puts itself at great risk of repeating the backlogs it has worked so hard to prevent by proposing to delay LIHEAP’s opening until November 27.    

A potential decrease in federal funding does not justify cutting people off from LIHEAP in November.  The potential for grave harm is just too great. 

Moreover, keeping LIHEAP closed in November makes very little sense if the goal is to save LIHEAP funds.  When people have no access to LIHEAP in November to avoid losing heat, they will suffer loss of heat.  To get heat turned back on, these people will need to pay utility company restoration fees and oil company furnace restart fees.  When LIHEAP finally opens on November 27, these people will need bigger LIHEAP grants to get heat restored than they would have needed in early November to avoid losing heat in the first place.  This will waste limited LIHEAP funds and must be avoided. 

In sum, delaying LIHEAP until November 27 will cut people off from LIHEAP at the most critical time of the LIHEAP season, put thousands of families in danger, needlessly waste LIHEAP funds, and will create overwhelming LIHEAP application backlogs at the CAOs.  If there is any time of the year when DHS should ensure maximum access to LIHEAP, it is in November.  We very strongly urge DHS to open LIHEAP no later than November 1.      

We also urge DHS to amend the proposed state plan to raise grant amounts.  All year low-income families struggle to afford home energy because there is an energy affordability crisis in the state of Pennsylvania.  Low-income utility customers in Pennsylvania can be and regularly are expected to pay 17% of their income on utility service—this is 4 times higher than what the average Pennsylvanian spends on home energy and almost 3 times higher than what low-income utility customers pay in our neighboring states of New Jersey and Ohio.  17% energy burdens are exorbitantly high—national experts and Congress itself recognizes energy burdens of over 6% to be excessive.  LIHEAP provides families with one chance to catch up. With lower grant amounts that will be much harder to do.

DHS’s proposal to close LIHEAP early on March 23rd denies low-income families the opportunity to access heating assistance before the winter moratorium on utility shut-offs ends on April 1st. Utility companies once again ramp up termination activity in the months before the April 1st end of the moratorium and then follow through with utility shut-offs starting April 1st.   Families need those last few business days to prevent a loss of service come April 1.  We recommend keeping the LIHEAP season open until April 1 at the earliest.

DHS has proposed these drastic cuts to save limited LIHEAP funds.  If LIHEAP funds need to be saved, DHS needs to increase its own efficiency to save LIHEAP dollars and ensure that utility companies are doing their part to maximize benefits for LIHEAP recipients before DHS asks struggling families to accept the drastic cuts DHS has proposed. DHS can avoid needless duplicative application processing by allowing SNAP, TANF, and Medicaid applicants to apply for LIHEAP as part of one application process instead of two.  People who are eligible for these other benefits and who pay for home energy are almost always eligible for LIHEAP as well.  There is no need for an entirely separate LIHEAP application process for these families. 

DHS can also avoid processing multiple LIHEAP applications from a single applicant by requiring utility companies to accept Crisis grants the first time they are offered.  Currently, utility companies can choose to refuse a Crisis grant, sending a family scrambling to find additional funds, all while living without heat, before the family applies again for LIHEAP.  DHS should require utility companies to accept the Crisis grant the first time it is offered and then work with the family to make payment arrangements for whatever arrearage still exists once service is restored.  This will save the family from a home without heat, and save DHS from having to process multiple applications for a single Crisis grant.  DHS can fix these needless wastes of time and LIHEAP administration dollars, which will also make LIHEAP work better for struggling families and make more funds available for more people to get the help they need.

Finally, a few comments about today’s hearing itself.  We urge DHS to find a time and a place for the LIHEAP public hearing that will permit more Philadelphia LIHEAP recipients and LIHEAP advocates to attend.  LIHEAP recipients live in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods in north, northeast, west, south, and southwest Philadelphia, yet these LIHEAP hearings are routinely held in center city only.  LIHEAP hearings should be held in neighborhoods where LIHEAP recipients live.  CLS has offered its North Philadelphia office as a venue for the LIHEAP hearings and I am sure there are other neighborhood organizations here today who could offer other ideas. 

July 4th celebrations are big in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the country.  Holding this hearing the day after this major holiday presents many obstacles to meaningful public participation.  LIHEAP hearings should be held a week later, after 4th of July vacations and other celebrations are over in mid-July. 

Public transportation is the main way people get around in Philadelphia.  This venue is several blocks from the closest subway stop.  Philadelphia LIHEAP hearings should always be easily accessible by subway.       

CLS will be submitting full written comments to DHS by July 14.  Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.