Every winter, there are elderly people on a fixed income who die because they can’t afford to adequately heat their homes. Low-Income Energy Assistance Programs, known in many states as LIHEAP, have saved countless lives, but they’ve been plagued by fraud.
Pointing to the fraud and claiming that LIHEAP is outdated, President Donald Trump has proposed eliminating the heating aid program from the budget, reportedly stating that utilities cannot cut customers off in the dead of winter. According to an article in the Associated Press on Sunday, the President has it all wrong.
The report states that “officials close to the program don’t see any widespread fraud. Guidelines for winter shutoffs by utilities vary from state to state and don’t apply to heating oil, a key energy source in the brittle New England winter.”
The heating assistance program has reportedly distributed $3.4 billion to approximately 6 million households this fiscal year, but it may not survive this year’s budget cuts.
In their efforts to make sure the program carries on, 43 senators — most of them from northern states — sent a letter urging the Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee to keep the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program funded.
In Maine, the program helped nearly 77,000 people survive last winter’s freezing temperatures. According to Deborah Turcotte of MaineHousing, which helps to run the program, those numbers represent less than a quarter of eligible households.
Mark Wolfe, head of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, says that the Trump administration is “relying on an old General Accounting Office report on the fraud claim, and that improvements have been made since then. In Maine, for example, only 100 cases — 0.3 percent of all submitted applications — are being investigated for potential fraud, according to MaineHousing,” according to the AP report.
The report also pointed out that some states prevent shutoffs during the entire winter, while others refrain from cutting off non-paying customers only in sub-zero temperatures.
Heating oil and propane dealers, on the other hand, are not regulated like electric and natural gas utilities to make deliveries to customers who don’t have the money to pay them. This is a problem in the Northeast, where more than 80 percent of the nation’s residential heating oil is being utilized.
The LIHEAP program already has undergone substantial cuts, with average benefits going down by $100 from 2010 to 2015 when funding was slashed during the Obama administration. In addition, Venezuela’s Citgo Petroleum Corp. stopped taking part in a free-oil program, which had been run by a Massachusetts-based nonprofit.
Not to mention the fact that throughout the country, home heating costs are rising with fuel prices.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), along with Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) and others have vowed to fight for the program, which King said ensures that needy people “aren’t forced to make the impossible choice between heat and food, medications, or other necessities.”
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