State decides not to expand eligibility for heating assistance program

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(Host) A last-minute infusion of federal funds means the state should have enough money to help very low income Vermonters heat their homes this winter.

But officials have decided not to raise the eligibility guidelines for the heating assistance program. That means potentially thousands of people could still have trouble paying their heating bills.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Congress recently came through with more federal funds for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP.

The money means the state will avoid a potential $19 million shortfall in the program.

Steve Dale is the commissioner of the Department of Children and Families. He told a legislative committee that rising fuel prices have led to a tremendous demand for fuel assistance.

(Dale) “There’s been a 25% increase in applications, but only a 10% increase in the number of people who have been determined eligible. So, obviously, that is reflective of the tremendous anxiety that is out there, the number of people who have contacted us who have never contacted us previously.”

(Dillon) To get help from LIHEAP now, you have to earn 125% or less of the federal poverty level. For a family of two, that’s $17,500.

The bill passed by Congress allowed Vermont to raise the income eligibility guidelines to up to 300% of the federal poverty level.

For a two-person family, that’s about $42,000.

But Dale says officials decided not to raise the income level, because it means that those most in need would get less money.

(Dale) “Because the prices have gone up so much and we still expect the people who receive benefits to pay a substantial portion of their actual heating costs. Their costs are going to go up so much that to think of reducing our percentage participation for those people is equally as difficult. So this is all a matter of just trying to sort out with a finite amount of money, how to best distribute it.”

(Dillon) LIHEAP is designed to pay 60% of a person’s heating costs. The average benefit this winter is expected to be around $1,900.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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