Washington–Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) joined Senators Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and a bipartisan group of senators to urge the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to release funds for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) as quickly and at the highest level possible under the current continuing resolution. LIHEAP funding is a crucial lifeline that assists low-income households and seniors on fixed incomes pay their energy bills and stay safe during the winter. HHS typically releases 90 percent of the $3.7 billion full year appropriation under a continuing resolution.
LIHEAP is a federally funded program that helps low-income households with their home energy bills by providing payment and/or energy crisis assistance. Rhode Island’s LIHEAP is administered by the Department of Human Services, and accessed through local Community Action Agencies. Last year, about 30,000 Rhode Islanders received LIHEAP assistance. The average annual LIHEAP benefit to Rhode Island households that use the program is in the range of about $720.
The average cost of home heating is unaffordable for millions of low-income households, costing an average of $911 per year nationally. The timely release of these funds will provide critical assistance to families unemployed as a result of the pandemic pay their energy bills. According to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, 15 to 20 percent of residential customers are at least 60 days behind on their electric and natural gas bills. As of July 31, 2020, the estimated resulting electric arrearages are between $8 billion and $9.9 billion and natural gas arrearages are between $975 million and $1.3 billion.
In addition to Feinstein, Reed and Collins, the bipartisan letter was signed by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Angus King (I-Maine), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).
Text of the letter follows:
October 14, 2020
The Honorable Alex M. Azar II
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
330 C Street, SW
Washington, D.C. 20416
Dear Secretary Azar:
With passage of the continuing resolution, we write to urge the Department of Health and Human Services to release Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funds as quickly and at the highest level possible.
As the main federal program that helps low-income households and seniors with their energy bills, LIHEAP provides critical assistance during the cold winter and hot summer months. October marks the start of the heating season for many states and low-income families and seniors will be facing additional strains on their household budgets. In addition, millions of low-income families, including seniors, are facing new and severe financial hardship due to the coronavirus, making the assistance provided through LIHEAP more important than ever.
As state agencies work to prepare their LIHEAP programs for the coming winter, it is crucial that they have the resources they need to assist low-income households and seniors as soon as possible, especially in light of the current health crisis. As such, we request that you quickly release LIHEAP funds at the highest level possible to allow states to prepare for the upcoming season, so that low-income households do not have to choose between paying for heat and affording other necessities like food or medicine.
We look forward to continuing to work with you on this critical program, and thank you for your attention to our concerns and those of our constituents.