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Fuel Assistance hits delivery snag in Massachusetts

Critically needed home fuel assistance for low-income households has gotten off to a slow start across the nation, and at least a quarter of a million low-income households in Massachusetts have been anxiously awaiting for the fuel oil to flow.

The Commonwealth submitted its plans for the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) in August of 2011. At that time, based on President Barack Obama’s budget nationally of $1.98 billion, Massachusetts was planning on receiving $81.75 million for fuel assistance for the poor. The program year was to begin November 1, 2011, and run through the end of April, 2012. A maximum benefit level was set at $400. But as the proposal noted, “the benefit levels are subject to change based on final availability of federal funds.” Last year the maximum fuel benefit was $1,050.  Nov. 1 rolled around, but there was no fuel assistance program in sight. Apparently the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, which administers the funds, knows how much fuel money is coming to the state—but the federal government has not delivered the formal “award letter,” which is needed before the state can direct local agencies to buy fuel for local families.

“There are tens of thousands of elderly households that are waiting for the fuel truck to pull into the driveway,” explained Mass Home Care Executive Director Al Norman. “It would be ironic for the power to go back on in all homes—but the oil tank will still be empty.” Norman said every year seniors are faced with the unpleasant choice of ‘heat or eat.’

According to one agency which disburses the funds in Massachusetts, “Some LIHEAP funding was authorized but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services decided not to release the funds to the States. As of late October, some funds were released. Approximately $77million will be distributed inMassachusetts as soon as the state Dept. of Housing and Community Development sets the benefit levels. Just to stay even with last year Massachusetts needs nearly $200 million. We are truly worried that benefit levels will not be high enough for those who heat with oil for a 100 gallon delivery. Most dealers won’t deliver for less. Most qualified households should get 100 gallons delivered. Which will last them until—we’re guessing maybe until December 1st. So without Congress acting soon there will be a real crisis for low income residents whether they are seniors, families or individuals. The Continuing Resolution ends November 18th, so we hope that at that point LIHEAP will be funded at about $4.7 billion nationally. That is about where we were last year. But with all the deficit talks going on, we can’t be sure if the funding will be approved—or subject to another incremental increase — a true killer for a program that is front loaded for the winter months.”

Fuel programs in Massachusetts note that for the first time in three decades, the aid program did not start on November 1. Until the federal government gives the green light, no fuel deliveries will be made. Advocates are asking the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to release $192 million in LIHEAP funding for Massachusetts, which is roughly equivalent to what was provided last year.

In early October, U.S Senator John Kerry wrote to the Obama Administration, asking them to release the $5.1 billion for LIHEAP nationally. Kerry noted “Those who need assistance from LIHEAP the most are often our ‘Greatest Generation seniors’ who have contributed to our country all their lives and now live on fixed incomes, in addition to low-income working families struggling to pay rent and keep their heads above water in a difficult economy.”

Norman said if the federal government does not get the fuel aid program going soon, they will be responsible for a ‘man made disaster’ that could have been averted.”

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