Biden fails to release approved energy assistance funds — why?

Biden fails to release approved energy assistance funds — why?
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Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one in three low income families are behind on their energy bills, with more than $27 billion in utility residential debt nationwide. This is the highest level of arrearages we have ever seen. State utility shutoff moratoriums — policies designed to keep families connected to energy services during the pandemic and cold winter months — are expiring.  

Congress did the right thing in the American Recovery Plan by providing an additional $4.5 billion in assistance for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to help struggling families pay their energy bills.

But that was almost two months ago, and the funds have not been released.

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Struggling families around the country are facing the impossible choice of paying for their utility bill, which could be upwards of $3,000 if they fell behind due to pandemic-related unemployment, or buying food, medicine, and other necessities.

Utilities are also facing a dilemma. Do they disconnect families who owe thousands on their bills? Or do they keep them connected, knowing the households will rack up more debt with no way to repay?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) can fix the problem for both struggling families and the utility companies they owe: Immediately release the $4.5 billion in LIHEAP funds.

During the regular appropriations process, HHS usually releases funds within 30 days after Congress approves its budget.

Just this fall, it only took 35 days from when Congress passed the Continuing Appropriations Act of 2021 to when HHS released $3.36 billion in LIHEAP funds to the states to begin paying energy bills for struggling families.

The American Recovery Plan was passed March 11, and the $4.5 billion for LIHEAP is still not out. And HHS sources have told us that it could be another 45 days before states start to see those dollars.

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Why the delay?

Our organization, which represents the state LIHEAP directors, has asked HHS to release the funds. American families should not have to struggle without heat, hot water, and electricity due to bureaucratic delays.

We are also asking the utilities: Please do not rush to shut off customers who are months behind on their bills. The funds will arrive. Keeping households connected until the money is released will not do you much harm, but it could literally save your customers’ lives.

And we would like the families that are barely holding on: Help is on the way.

We expected better.

Mark Wolfe is an energy economist who serves as the executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, representing state directors of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Cassandra Lovejoy serves as policy director.