by Hadley Barndollar, New Hampshire Bulletin
Ahead of a winter season anticipated to see exorbitantly high heating and electricity costs, New Hampshire lawmakers earmarked an additional $35 million in state funds to help another 50,000 households pay the bills.
As he signed off on the new emergency energy assistance programs in September, Gov. Chris Sununu touted “the largest energy relief package this state has ever seen.” The state-funded programs specifically targeted households with incomes between 60 and 75 percent of the state median that historically wouldn’t qualify for the federally funded Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
For the first time, a family of two with a maximum gross annual income of $63,699 would qualify for energy assistance, as would a family of four with an income of $93,676.
While New Hampshire was making headlines for some of the highest energy costs in the nation, the legislation expanded by tens of thousands the number of households eligible to receive aid for their utility bills and fuel deliveries.
But as of March 24, the state had distributed just $550,000 – a scant 1.5 percent of what lawmakers made available.
The last day to apply for energy assistance is April 30. At the end of the fiscal year on June 30, all leftover money will go into the state’s General Fund.
The huge percentage of remaining funds raises questions about the state’s outreach efforts to the more than 50,000 households that suddenly qualified, or if the Legislature significantly over appropriated funding in the first place. Additionally, workforce challenges slowed the approval process for some applicants, and an antiquated application didn’t include an online option.
In response to an information request by the New Hampshire Bulletin, the Department of Energy reported a more than 30 percent increase in residents seeking energy assistance, for a total of just over 33,000 households.
After legislative approval in September, the Department of Energy began working to stand up the new programs; the efforts included software updates and setting up accounts for the funding. Deputy Commissioner Chris Ellms said they did so “effectively and efficiently in compliance with all requisite laws, regulations, and rules” while working alongside community action agencies tasked with processing applications and handing out the money.
Ray Burke, director of the Energy and Utility Justice Project at New Hampshire Legal Assistance, called the past year “a huge challenge” for both energy assistance applicants and the agencies processing their requests.
As of the end of March, 4,500 applications were either “incomplete or in process” for all programs, according to the Department of Energy, meaning they’re still awaiting approval or the household has been unable to provide all necessary documents with their application.
“I do think the reality is that all of the community action agencies are having staffing challenges, and the application volume has gone up at the same time,” Burke said. “It’s a good opportunity to see how we can modernize fuel assistance. States have a lot of flexibility in how they design it, and I think it’s been a long time since we looked at the process and procedures.”
98.5 percent of state energy aid remains unspent
A total of 33,122 households had applied for energy assistance as of March 18, said Ellms. The lion’s share – more than 25,000 – were eligible and approved for the traditional Fuel Assistance Program, the state’s LIHEAP. Under the state’s new assistance programs, 858 households had been approved for the fuel benefit and 842 for the electric benefit.
The Legislature had estimated its $35 million appropriation could cover assistance for approximately 50,000 households, Ellms said.
“When the Legislature chose to pursue income-targeted relief instead of an electric bill credit to every household, uncertainty was introduced related to program uptake,” he said. “This is in part because the new income demographic eligible for the emergency programs is not traditionally eligible for assistance programs through the community action agencies, and it was unclear how many would choose to participate. The Legislature erred on the side of appropriating too much rather than too little.”
The millions lawmakers signed off on was nearly half of what Sununu initially proposed over the summer. The governor wanted to use $60 million for one-time payments of $100 to almost all ratepayers in New Hampshire.
In early December, when applications were barrelling in and the state had yet to start disbursing money, Sununu said they were “seeing less of an uptake” in the state emergency programs than expected, “given the incredibly high rates.”
Ellms said public outreach included a radio and digital advertising campaign. The electric and gas utilities promoted the assistance in customer bills, and fuel vendors provided information to clients in need.
But the 1.5 percent of funds distributed suggests those efforts weren’t enough.
For comparison, another state agency launched a massive outreach campaign to educate residents about the coming end of the federal public health emergency and what it could mean for Medicaid beneficiaries.
The Department of Health and Human Services mailed an initial 75,000 letters, sent 14,500 emails and texts, made calls to every Medicaid recipient in long-term care facilities, and hired 33 temporary workers to staff a helpline to reduce wait times. A social media campaign included graphics that organizations around the state could share, and “navigators” were designated within the Department of Insurance to help residents go through the process to maintain coverage.
In February, as the end of the public health emergency drew closer, DHHS mailed another round of more urgent letters to people who had yet to get in touch with the state.
The Department of Energy does not have a Facebook page, and its Twitter account has not been active since July. A scan of the five community action agencies’ Facebook pages shows two have not posted since October and November.
National data signals a demonstrated need for the expanded energy assistance programs, and reinforces the expectation that more households should be taking advantage of the state funding. In January, the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association reported the highest total rate of energy assistance applications since 2011, and that the number of households receiving assistance during the 2022-2023 winter season was up by an estimated 1.3 million.
While states had sufficient funding to address the increased need, the association said, it warned they could run out of money “if the rate of new applications continues to increase.”
Meanwhile, about 1 in 6 U.S. households owed an average of $791 in utility arrearages.
Data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey in 2021 showed approximately 53,000 New Hampshire households made between $35,000 and $49,999 that year, 85,000 households made between $50,000 and $74,999, and 70,000 households made between $75,000 and $99,999.
While the number of people in each household – a key piece to determine assistance eligibility – is not provided by the census dataset, the numbers suggest tens of thousands of households in New Hampshire were eligible to apply for the state-funded programs.
‘I hope they can make this process better’
Spring was two days away when David and Emma Bates found out they’d been approved for winter energy assistance.
The family of five living in Warner received their approval notices in the mail on March 18, after applying for fuel and electricity relief on Nov. 7, 2022 – more than five months earlier.
They had to submit a lengthy application that required proof of income, tax returns, and Social Security cards, among other documents. It took a week to gather all of the required records, Emma Bates said, and after submitting their completed application, “there was absolutely nothing” from the community action agency.
After four months, she picked up the phone to inquire about their status.
Meanwhile, February’s “oh my God” oil delivery of more than $850 had come and gone.
Once applicants are approved, the state’s community action agencies distribute the benefits directly to utilities or heat providers. Ellms said benefits can be applied retroactively to reduce or eliminate overdue charges. It wasn’t immediately clear if benefits can be used for bills already paid.
“I hope they can make this process better next year,” Emma Bates said.
Burke, who works with low-income clients at New Hampshire Legal Assistance, said the Bateses are not a “one-off,” and that staffing challenges at the community action agencies have in some cases impacted the timely administration of the energy assistance programs.
Jeanne Agri, CEO of the Community Action Program of Belknap-Merrimack Counties, said every application is reviewed individually by both an intake staff member and a “certifier.” In most years, the process has taken up to 60 days once all required documents are received. But this year has been different.
“During the busy winter months this season there was a backlog of applications that regretfully did lead to longer processing times across the state, including our agency,” Agri said. “We took many steps to mitigate this, including hiring temp staff and having staff work overtime, but the influx of new programs, increased applications, and the continued impact of staff outages due to COVID were a challenge.”
When the increased energy assistance workload hit community action agencies last fall, employees were still in the throes of administering the federally funded Emergency Rental Assistance Program. The agencies enrolled nearly 30,000 applications in the rental program to the tune of more than $297 million, according to New Hampshire Housing, a social services organization.
In a statement, Ryan Clouthier, chief operating officer at Southern New Hampshire Services, one of the state’s community action agencies, said staff have been “working diligently to ensure (energy assistance) applications are processed in the order they were received.”
Ellms, who praised community action agencies for working hard to process applications, also mentioned workforce challenges, specifically the state’s low unemployment rate combined with the impacts of new programs and increased volume of assistance requests. That merging of factors, he said, “makes staffing an area of need.”
Is it time to modernize NH energy assistance?
Burke pointed to system efficiencies that could be implemented to increase uptake and streamline processes – like moving from a paper application to an online one.
Applicants for energy assistance this fall and winter had to either mail, scan, fax, or bring their application materials into a community action agency office, consistent with how the state has handled LIHEAP applications in the past.
Because LIHEAP had already begun taking applications when the Legislature authorized the new emergency funding, Ellms said, the same process was maintained to handle all applications efficiently and cohesively.
Burke thinks it’s time the state modernizes its energy assistance programs. He said New Hampshire Legal Assistance has been connecting with stakeholders in other New England states “looking at different policy options the state could pursue to make some improvements.”
An online application is key, Burke said, “for the majority of people these days.”
He noted a significant number of households applying for energy assistance for the first time ultimately found out they were eligible for LIHEAP based on income, meaning in years prior the state hasn’t been reaching all of the people it could be helping.
In Maine, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, households that receive SNAP or TANF benefits are automatically enrolled in energy assistance programs. That’s information-sharing across state departments that Burke doesn’t currently see in New Hampshire.
Those states are “really seeing an efficiency and reduced administrative burden in the application process,” he said.
Efficiency is also important when data shows that energy assistance programs are a good return on investment for states and the federal government. A 2021 analysis by Moody’s Analytics found that for every dollar of LIHEAP funding given out, there’s economic growth of $1.31.
Asked if the Department of Energy is considering any ways to streamline the assistance programs for next season, Ellms said, “We are always looking at ways to improve the process.”
This story was written by Hadley Barndollar, a reporter at the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.
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