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June 26, 2012 | By | Posted in General News

Home heating assistance cuts possible this winter

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — It’s getting cold in here.

A multi-million dollar home-heating assistance program is facing a decrease in federal money, and state officials are looking for ways to keep the heat on.

This week, the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee released a report on the administration of the federal Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), about two-thirds of which goes directly toward heating grants and crisis assistance.

The report was drafted per Senate Resolution 165, which asked for an efficiency study on LIHEAP from the finance committee, noting some 533,000 residents statewide were eligible to receive assistance.

The review of the program comes at a time when federal funds for the program have dwindled. Allocations for the total LIHEAP have fallen from:

  • $277 million in 2011;
  • $209 million in 2012;
  • An anticipated $166 million in 2013

The grant portion of LIHEAP is managed by the Department of Public Welfare, which administers money to vendors designated by the applicant. The vendor then receives credit from the grant program in the applicant’s name to provide them with fuel oil, natural gas, or another energy source that heats the home.

Recipients participating in the program for the second year or longer can begin receiving assistance as early as September, while new applicants start in November.

But as a result of federal funding decreases, the upcoming winter season may see a slow start for people who rely on LIHEAP annually.

The maximum the Department of Public Welfare can carry over into the next year is 10 percent of the overall allocation, which is $20 million for the 2012-13 season.

Without federal carryover funding, Pennsylvania is “not in the position to start operation of the LIHEAP program in late September,” according to the report. But even with a full 10 percent carryover, a drop in federal funding could further slow the program.

“If the program is not positioned to start up at that time, processing and payment of applications are likely to lag behind prior year schedules,” according to the report.

Maryann Nardone, project manager with the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, said the program last year began in September with $35 million, and  would have run out of money at the end of December without additional funding.

“Twenty million would help them to start, but if they get money slower than they did last year, or they get money that is a lot less than what they initially got, they may be struggling to continue to keep the program open until they get more money,” she said.

Last season also saw longer application times, with completed grant requests taking up to 51 calendar days to process, despite a 45-day DPW completion target. The delay was attributed to unanticipated system integration problems, as a new automated system called eCis was rolled out to take over manual application processes.

In a response to the report, Department of Public Welfare Secretary Gary Alexander said though system changes gave way to “unforeseen issues” this past season, the system is part of a push to increase  the integrity of benefit programs.

He said the department “plans to reserve as close to the 10 percent as possible,” regarding the carryover amount.

To ensure better operation of the system, some have suggested using state funds to jumpstart the program before federal funding kicks in, according to the report.

But that, Nardone said, could be risky as federal numbers are subject to change.

Final recommendations of the report include:

  • Better educating the LIHEAP Advisory Committee, utilities, vendors and recipients about recent changes in application processing and payment
  • Having the Department of Public Welfare retain the 10 percent carryover funding from year-to-year as permitted by the federal government
  • Monitoring new automated systems for unforeseen issues that could increase application approval times
  • Encouraging greater participation of community partners to improve application efficiencies.

Others raise concerns about the ability of the system to combat fraud. Nardone said eCis helps with this process by verifying recipients during the application process. But the vendors who are issuing the energy source — fuel oil or natural gas, for example — are the ones who get the funds, and some are concerned money isn’t going where it should.

Rep. Robert Godshall, R-Montgomery, said the system has many safeguards, but that may not be enough.

“Most people today are honest, but we still have some rip-off artists that are just going to take advantage of every little thing. This is a program we don’t have a lot of money available, we have a lot of people that need help ,” he said. “And we want to make sure it runs efficiently to the benefit of the people that need the services.”

This story was amended on Wednesday, July 27 to reflect the proper name of the Department of Public Welfare.

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Eric Boehm is a reporter for PA Independent. He can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com or at (717) 350-0963.

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