Heating help hits snag in Senate

Money would have helped poor pay bills

WASHINGTON – With costs rising for heating oil, natural gas and electricity, social service advocates fear an upcoming crisis for families struggling to make ends meet this fall and winter.

Yet work in Congress to increase government help for heating and cooling bills has been caught up in the wider political debate about gas prices and oil drilling, worrying some advocates that poor residents will suffer if more money doesn’t come through.

“We had a major setback over the weekend,” said Bob Ott, director of Adult Services for Centre County, Pa.

A Senate bill to add $2.5 billion to a government program for low-income families failed in a procedural vote in Washington last Saturday. It would have doubled the pot of money for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP.

Brandon Avila, spokesman for the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance, an advocacy group based in Washington, said he’s concerned both about more heat-related deaths this summer and cold-related deaths in the coming winter. “It’s really a recipe for disaster unless they get more funding,” Avila said. “This is becoming a health issue for low-income people who have fixed incomes.”

It needed 60 votes to move forward, but failed, 50-35.

The largely Democratic bill had 13 Republican co-sponsors, including Sen. Arlen Specter, Pa. But he voted against the measure after Republican leaders vowed to block any Democratic energy measure that didn’t focus on gas prices.

Specter said that he has been a staunch supporter of the LIHEAP program, but that he thinks Congress should focus first on oil prices. “It’s going to be a job to explain it (to constituents). There is no doubt about that,” Specter said on the Senate floor. “But I am willing to undertake that risk.”

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., also a co-sponsor, supported the measure, saying the money would have been “a potentially life-saving benefit.” The LIHEAP program offers grants for low-income households to help cover heating and cooling costs, but advocates say it isn’t keeping pace with rising costs.

Heating oil is well above $4 a gallon, and a minimum 100-gallon delivery would cost a household more than $400, Ott said.

The grants for families in crisis are currently limited to $300.

Last year, the program helped 3,200 families with payments averaging $245. More than 1,100 families also received crisis payments, Ott said. Now, Ott and others worry about how to help low-income residents in the coming months.

A report from the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association in Washington shows 15.6 million households were more than 30 days past due on their energy bills this spring, up more than a million from a year earlier. That means they are threatened with having their energy shut off. In Pennsylvania, for example, 650,000 households were in arrears – a 30 percent jump over the previous year

“It’s like two societies,” said Mark Wolfe, the association’s executive director. “We talk about how we’re all suffering equally. It’s not true. … For poor families, this is very scary.”


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