Senators fight for fuel aid

With time running out for Congress to act on a budget to keep the federal government running past next Monday, both U.S. senators from Massachusetts have called on Senate leaders to keep the nation’s fuel assistance program running as part of a continuing resolution.

The bipartisan effort, which includes members from all six New England states and 17 others, urges maintained funding of $3.46 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program in any upcoming continuing resolution that’s required because of refusal by House Republicans to approve a budget that funds the Affordable Care Act.

LIHEAP helps low-income households, veterans and seniors pay heating bills during the winter months.

Democratic Sens. Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren, joined in the letter to Senate leaders calling for language in any spending bill to direct the Department of Health and Human Services to release the full amount of each state’s LIHEAP allocation at current levels.

The LIHEAP program helps about 19,000 adults and children living in about 9,000 households in Franklin and Hampshire counties, according to Claire Higgins, executive director of Community Action, which administers the program here.

More than 90 percent of LIHEAP recipients nationally have at least one elderly household member, disabled household member, or child in their homes, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association.

“For these households, access to affordable home energy is a matter of health and safety,” the senators wrote. “LIHEAP funding has been a lifeline during challenging economic times, helping to ensure that recipients do not have to choose between paying their energy bills and paying for other necessities like food and medicine. Unfortunately, the number of households eligible for the program continues to surpass those able to receive assistance. Funding for LIHEAP has declined 32 percent in recent years … This has led to a reduction in the average grant award from $417 to $308 since 2009 and decreased the purchasing power of the grant for low-income households.”

The Energy Information Administration projects that household expenditures for heating oil will increase 17 percent this winter, with natural gas expenses expected to rise 8 percent, the letter adds.

At Community Action processing of LIHEAP applications began a couple of weeks ago.

Higgins said that for most recipients, the program helps pay for about 30 percent of their heating fuel, “but it’s a critical 30 percent,” coming often at the start of the heating season with the initial fill-up of their fuel tanks, as they try to catch up with paying bills from the previous year. “This bit of assistance they get from the federal government is really critical and has a profound effect on the well-being of seniors and children.”

In addition, she said, the nearly $4 million in funding that comes to the two counties goes back to local vendors.

Coming on the heels of severe proposed cuts in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, Higgins said, “It’s compounding an already difficult issue.”

Although Community Action is continuing to tell people to apply for fuel assistance, she said, “If there’s absolutely no money on Oct. 1, we’re going to have to make a plan about what we’re going to do, and we’ll have to scale back what we’re doing.”

Markey said of the continuing resolution effort, “We cannot allow threats of a government shutdown to force Americans to shut off their thermostats this winter due to cuts to this vital home energy program. Sequestration is already leading to devastating benefit cuts to LIHEAP on top of the reductions that have occurred since 2010.”

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