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‘A tsunami waiting to happen’: Lawmakers, advocates say Maryland needs to fix help line for utility bill assistance

Maryland has $176 million set aside to assist eligible families who cannot afford their utility bills, but lawmakers and advocates are worried that many won’t be able to access the money as Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. and other utilities resume sending turn-off notices.

The state Department of Human Service’s toll-free phone number is advertised as the best way to apply for the Office of Home Energy Program funds. But it’s “nearly impossible” to navigate the system and get a customer-service representative, said lawmakers who represent Baltimore.

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“When residents call 800-332-6347 for energy assistance questions or application status, it is nearly impossible to navigate the voice recording and get to a trained energy assistance counselor,” Baltimore’s General Assembly delegation wrote in a letter to Lourdes R. Padilla, Maryland’s human services secretary. “We ask that DHS quickly re-vamp this toll-free number to make the path clearer for applicants to access inbound agents, especially for energy assistance.”

The problems with the help line have been exacerbated by closures of local home energy program offices due to the coronavirus, limiting customers' ability to get help applying for assistance. And it’s caused alarm about a potential repeat of the problems with the state’s unemployment portal, which was overwhelmed by new claims at the start of the pandemic.

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The problems come as utilities report a spike in late payments amid the coronavirus pandemic. BGE reported a 30% increase in customers with unpaid bills a month or more overdue.

The Sept. 29 letter was signed by Sen. Mary Washington, Del. Stephanie Smith and other Democratic lawmakers who make up Baltimore’s delegation. They followed up this week after receiving no response, Washington said.

The state’s lack of response to legislators doesn’t bode well for low-income Maryland families — many of whom could receive turn-off notices in the coming months, Washington said.

She worries what a loss of power, heat and internet would mean during the pandemic for students engaged in remote learning; medical patients relying on telehealth for doctor’s visits; and those working remotely.

“COVID has exacerbated the need for these people to stay connected," Washington said.

In a statement released by the Department of Human Services this week, Bill Freeman, director of the department’s Office of Home Energy Program, encouraged any Marylander who is behind on their bills to “take proactive steps that could prevent any discontinuation of utility services."

“We encourage affected Marylanders to take advantage of the available energy-assistance options and to do so in a timely manner,” Freeman said. "Don’t wait until the last possible minute for a helping hand that could be given now.”

Katherine Morris, a department spokeswoman, did not respond to a request to make Freeman available for an interview.

But she said the department has doubled the number of workers staffing the help line to 110, and drop boxes were placed at municipal social services locations across the state in March to allow people to securely submit hard-copy documents related to obtaining or updating benefits.

Utilities are sending the state and local home energy offices daily lists of all customers receiving 45-day termination notices, and staff are calling and sending mail and emails to urge those customers to apply for help, Morris said.

“This will help ensure that the protections and assistance in place are functioning and if additional activities are necessary,” she wrote in an email.

The state also is encouraging people to call their local Home Energy Program offices, “where staff are on standby, ready to assist whomever calls,” Morris wrote.

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Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, did not respond to emailed questions but said the governor’s office is “working closely with [DHS] to make sure that customers know what resources are available to them, and that they get the help they need.”

Cindy Carter spent an hour on hold with the state’s toll-free line every day for more than a week.

“We’ve been yelling about this for months,” she said. “It does not work.”

Carter co-founded the Critical Medical Needs Program, working with nonprofits, advocacy and outreach groups and care providers to ensure medically vulnerable households who meet income eligibility guidelines can avoid having their utilities cut off.

Carter, executive director of the Cancer Support Foundation Inc., said she has stopped referring people to the state’s 800 phone number altogether. Without the state taking action, call volumes will mount as more rate payers receive notices, and they won’t be able to get through to a representative, she warned.

“It’s a nightmare and a tsunami waiting to happen,” she said.

About 177,000 BGE customers have unpaid bills 30 or more days overdue, according to spokeswoman Linda Foy, who said service terminations are a last resort.

BGE has sent out about 30,000 turn-off notices since mid-October. Payment plans with installments as low as $10 a month are available.

“We do not want to be in the business of disconnecting customers, especially right now,” said Tamla Olivier, BGE senior vice president and chief customer officer. “Call us so that we can help you, and we don’t have to be in a position where we are disconnecting you.”

Olivier and Foy said they had not heard about issues with the state DHS help line. But Olivier emphasized that BGE had launched a massive public-service messaging campaign to make sure customers know the various payment and assistance options available to them.

“We increased community touchpoints by well over a million additional communications we would typically not do,” she said.

Baltimore City has about 1,900 applications waiting in the queue for energy assistance and received 1,000 in the last week alone, said Tisha Edwards, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success, which runs the city’s home energy program.

The Baltimore office, which generally ranges from 30 to 50 employees, has hired 10 additional staffers to contact people who have received turn-off notices and help them apply for extensions and assistance, Edwards said.

Baltimore residents can call 410-545-0900 between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. for help. She said call volumes have increased, but most are being answered within seven minutes. While the city’s five community action centers remain closed due to COVID-19, applications and drop boxes are available outside.

“I want people to know everybody is struggling, and the city and state have put a lot of resources in place to help,” Edwards said. “The city is stepping up.”

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In their letter, lawmakers encouraged the state to take a handful of steps to help clear up confusion. Those included placing large “how to apply” posters at all local home energy program offices, with paper applications and drop boxes offered; adding clear “how to” information about accessing OHEP funds in the on-hold recording; and reporting weekly data to the Office of the People’s Counsel on the number of calls, applications and pending applications, denials, and other statistics.

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The Maryland Public Service Commission extended Hogan’s months-long moratorium on terminating residential gas, water and electric services through Nov. 15, citing the coronavirus pandemic. The commission, which regulates the utility companies, allowed utilities to begin issuing the notices of termination on Oct. 1.

People’s Counsel Paula M. Carmody, who represents Maryland utility customers, had petitioned the commission to require utility companies to extend the moratorium on service turn-offs until 30 days after the end of Hogan’s state of emergency order and set up more flexible payment plans.

Carmody said her office has been in touch with the state human services department about improving customer service on the help line. She is concerned about the lack of in-person assistance available, due to closed offices, for people without access to the internet.

“Everybody, including our agency, is encouraging people to enter into payment plans and apply for energy assistance if they’re eligible," Carmody said. "It’s easier said than done, particularly if customers experience barriers trying to access the energy assistance programs.”

Other advocates called on Hogan to sign an executive order protecting households with schoolchildren, at least, from utility shut-offs.

Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and chair of Energy Advocates, a coalition of nonprofits, advocates and other stakeholders, said the state’s lack of responsiveness to the issue is a “symptom of a larger problem.”

An “unconscionable” number of families, both in Maryland and nationwide, experience homelessness because of mounting utility bills, Makhijani said.

“When it comes to low-income households, we don’t have enough political heft to do right by them,” he said. “These are not new problems — they’ve just become worse because of the pandemic."

Del. Brooke Lierman, who signed the delegation letter, said the state must fix the help line before more calls start pouring in, or “it will fail.”

“This has the potential to be as problematic as the unemployment system has been over the past six months,” Lierman said.

This news was included in our weekday morning audio briefing on Oct. 30. Here’s how to listen.

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