Quick Questions: Jo-Ann Choate

Jo-Ann Choate is the National Energy Policy Advisor and Special Projects Coordinator for the Maine State Housing Authority, as well as the Chair of the Board of Directors for the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. We caught up with Ms. Choate to discuss rising home heating costs, possible cuts to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funding, and the effect of both on low-income families across the country.

Q. What is the national role of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program in helping low-income families pay their home heating and cooling bills?
The LIHEAP program is cru¬cial for helping low-income people meet basic energy needs, whether it’s extreme heat in the South or extreme cold in the Midwest and Northeast.
The amount of assistance pro¬vided is based on household size and income, energy costs, and other factors. While LIHEAP pays only a portion of household energy costs, it provides a direct benefit that makes being poor a little less painful and helps keep the most vulnerable populations safe from temperature extremes.
Q. What do you think the impact of rising heating oil prices will be on low-income families this winter?
People who live near or below the poverty level do not have the income to meet basic needs. Energy is just one of several unaffordable necessities for low-income house¬holds. Rising energy prices and cuts in LIHEAP will mean either fewer households served or lower benefits, or both. This will create life-threatening situations, putting people at risk of hypothermia and heat stroke—especially the elderly and infants—because they are in homes without air conditioning or heat.
This past heating season pro¬vides an example of how dangerous it can be for people living with dis¬abilities and limited income to go without heat. In Maine, a disabled woman was running out of heating oil and had her heat turned down extremely low. Her poorly insulted home leaked warm air and mois¬ture, eventually resulting in her door freezing over. Her disability prevented her from removing the ice and she became trapped inside her home.
Thanks to LIHEAP, and with help from Maine’s Weatherization Program (which is funded with help from LIHEAP), contractors were sent to her home to melt the ice from her door, seal the air leaks that contributed to her high energy bills, and provide her with emer¬gency fuel to heat her home.

Q. Can weatherization eliminate the need for LIHEAP?
It is true that weatherization reduces home energy costs. We have found that overall energy and cost savings are between 25 and 50 per¬cent, depending on the condition of the home and the work completed. Weatherization does not eliminate the need for LIHEAP, however. LIHEAP pays only a portion of home energy costs, and even with home weatherization, our most vul¬nerable households are still at risk.
Q. Can LIHEAP also pro¬vide cooling assistance?
The LIHEAP program provides benefits to help low-income house¬holds pay for their energy costs for home heating and cooling. This past year LIHEAP was hamstrung because Congress rescinded $400 million in contingency funds that would have been a major benefit across the nation to help with the extreme heat. Dozens of people have died this year because of the extreme hot weather conditions. I know of one elderly person who died in her bed with temperatures at more than 90 degrees with an air conditioner in her home that was turned off. It’s possible that she did not turn it on because she was concerned about the high cost of electricity. An adequately funded LIHEAP program can make energy affordable during normal heating and cooling seasons, but especially for our seniors during times of extreme heat and cold.

Q. The president’s FY2012 budget has requested a cut in LIHEAP funding from $4.7 billion to $2.57 billion. If enacted, how would this reduced funding impact Maine and the rest of the nation?
As state officials, we under¬stand the need for the federal government to make tough budget choices. However, we do not believe that LIHEAP is the place to cut. LIHEAP provides essential services to very poor families, espe¬cially those with members who are disabled, elderly, or young children. The program was already cut from $5.1 billion to $4.7 billion this year, and as a result, many states do not have sufficient funds to address the need for emergency cooling assis¬tance this summer.
Between 2008 and 2011, the number of families receiv¬ing LIHEAP assistance rose from about 5.8 million to 8.9 million. In addition, the overall price for home heating is now expected to increase, on average, by 11.4%, from $990 to $1,103, largely as a result of the major increase in home heating fuels. This is not the time to make additional cuts in LIHEAP.
Q. NEADA has requested an advance funding appropri¬ation for LIHEAP. How would that improve the manage¬ment of the program?
The LIHEAP authorizing legislation allows Congress to pro¬vide funding a year in advance of the program year. In other words, the FY2011 appropriation could provide funding for the FY2012 program year. This would allow states to plan their programs prior to the start of the winter heat¬ing season. In many cold weather states, the winter heating season can begin as early as October or November. Since Congress increas¬ingly cannot complete action on appropriations bills until late in the calendar year—or even, in some cases, the following year—the lack of an appropriation prior to the start of the winter heating season makes it extremely difficult for states to plan program benefit levels with any certainty. This raises adminis¬trative costs and limits the effec¬tiveness of the program.
Q. The Government Account¬ability Office issued a report on LIHEAP last year that found a number of errors in the paperwork that could have led to unneces¬sary benefits being paid. How are the states respond¬ing to the findings of the study?
The states have been working for many years now to improve the delivery of program services. One of the problems we have had in the past is not having readily available access to various infor¬mation resources that would help streamline the application pro¬cess and identify fraud. The State LIHEAP Directors and NEADA are now working directly with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to identify best practices and available informa¬tion resources to help ensure that LIHEAP serves only those eli¬gible households who really need it. The integrity of the program remains a top priority for the state and NEADA.