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DPU is LIKELY to extend winter moratorium on heat/utility terminations for low income households

Below is an alert from our colleagues at the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) in Boston about the extension of the utility shut-off moratorium. We will keep you posted as we get more information. Note that persons who receive SNAP, TAFDC, EAEDC, SSI, MassHealth, Fuel Assistance or other needs-based benefits are considered low-income and should be protected by the moratorium. SNAP and cash assistance status is automatically shared by DTA with electric and gas distribution companies for the SOLE purpose of qualifying the household for discount utility service (this is written into the consent form for SNAP and cash). This should "flag" the household as low income and thus also eligible for the moratorium.

If you have a client not in receipt of these benefits and/or unsure if the utility company is aware of their benefits status, please do have the client contact the utility company to fill out A FINANCIAL HARDSHIP FORM. To qualify as "low income", the household needs to be below 60% of the State Medium Income (SMI). For a chart and helpful tips, go to: http://www.massresources.org/shutoff-protection-eligibility.html  BIG THANKS to NCLC for their advocacy work to secure an extension !!

For additional advocacy resources, see the NCLC Utility Advocacy Handbook at:

http://www.nclc.org/images/pdf/energy_utility_telecom/stay%20connected/u...

Pat

From:Charlie Harak, NCLC

Subject: [NCLC UtilNet] IMPORTANT: DPU will LIKELY extend the winter moratorium on terminations
Importance: High

Yesterday, NCLC formally asked the Department of Public Utilities to extend the end date for the winter moratorium, from March 15 (the end-date set by statute) to April 15.   We BELIEVE that the DPU will grant our request, but we will let everyone know if that’s certain.

A few things to remember about the winter moratorium:

1. YOUR CLIENTS ARE NOT PROTECTED AGAINST TERMINATION UNLESS THE COMPANY KNOWS THAT YOUR CLIENT IS LOW-INCOME.    Non-low income customers CAN be terminated at any time of the year.   Your clients can submit a “financial hardship form” at any time to let the company know they are low-income.  This will get the account coded as “protected” against termination during the winter.   The company should provide you with a financial hardship form upon request.   (If they won’t, let me know).  Also, MANY (BUT NOT ALL!) of your clients who qualify for fuel assistance payments will be automatically coded as “protected” by the companies once the fuel assistance application is approved.   However, this is not 100% fool-proof.  For example, a client who heats with oil and gets fuel assistance to pay the oil bill HAS TO PROVIDE THE FUEL ASSISTANCE AGENCY WITH THE UTILITY ACCOUNT NUMBER for this to work.  There’s no way the fuel assistance agency can let  the utility know that the client should be coded as “protected”, unless the client provides the account number.  Also, it takes a while for the fuel assistance agencies to process applications, so it can be several weeks from the time a client applies for fuel assistance and the time the utility knows he client should be coded as “protected.”  Remember that your clients are free to fill out a financial hardship form on their own at any time..  This will protect the account from termination.

2.  Technically, the law only protects heat-related accounts from termination in the winter.   This means that a company could legally terminate someone who uses gas only for the stove.  It also means that the company could terminate someone’s electricity if the landlord provides the heat, since the tenant’s electricity is not necessary to operate the heating system.  In practice, most companies protect ALL low-income accounts from termination during the winter, whether or not the account is heat-related.

3.  If the DPU extends the winter moratorium to April 15, they will almost certainly do so by sending a letter to each company.  The DPU will NOT be issuing a formal, legally binding order.  This means that some companies may not immediately comply.  In the past, we’ve seen two types of problems.  First, some municipal light plants don’t comply with the DPU’s letter request.  (There are some 35 cities and towns in which the municipality operates an electric or combined electric/gas company).   Second, some of the investor owned  utilities (National GRID, NSTAR, Unitil, Western Mass. Electric Company, Berkshire Gas, Columbia Gas, New England Gas, Blackstone Gas) may not quickly enough train their front-line staff so that some of the front-line staff will not know that the moratorium has in fact been extended.  If you encounter either problem, please contact me immediately.

Again, while we have requested the DPU to extend the winter moratorium to April 15, we do not know for certain that they will do so.   We’ll keep you posted.