ELLSWORTH – While spring may be optimistic around the corner, this winter has been marked by biting cold days, making home heating even more critical for Mainers.
It has been a challenge for some this winter, who experienced delays in waiting for fuel assistance due to complications from COVID-19.
These complications included staff shortages – those who fell ill with COVID or were to be quarantined – by Community Action Programs (CAPs) such as Downeast Community Partners (DCP).
DCP, along with other CAPs in the state, has been contracted through MaineHousing to administer its Home Energy Assistance Program, known as HEAP.
To process applications for HEAP, applicants call DCP, make an appointment and fill out the application, which includes income confirmation. DCP can then certify the application before sending it to MaineHousing for its review and approval of funds to fuel suppliers, DCP CEO Rebecca Palmer explained.
The final step – delivery – also ran into challenges caused by COVID, said Scott Thistle, communications director for MaineHousing.
Like many industries, fuel suppliers experienced labor force problems and waited for waivers to exceed overtime hours set by federal laws on moving hazardous materials, Thistle said.
These exemptions were introduced federally to meet delivery requirements during the pandemic.
In addition, Palmer reported that DCP, thanks to employees who work overtime and from home if they were in quarantine, has caught up with its backlog of applications.
Meanwhile, DCP, other CAPs, and MaineHousing are also working to limit application delays in post-pandemic times.
Two major changes proposed by MaineHousing for 2023 include an online pre-application to speed up the application process and categorical eligibility, Thistle said.
This eligibility would allow eligible people, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and MaineCare, among others, not to have to prove their entitlement to HEAP to save treatment time.
While federal rules require an annual application, MaineHousing is in negotiations with the state congressional delegation, said Thistle, who is reportedly all very responsive to the issue of home heating.
U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) sits on a subcommittee that helps write the HEAP budget, Thistle said.
“She is very well positioned and she has long been a proponent of the HEAP program.”
Changes proposed by the DCP and the CAPs working together also include the implementation of categorical eligibility. Palmer explained that this could also mean that HEAP-approved applicants would be approved for other social assistance and a weather protection program so that homes receiving assistance would achieve the heat effectively.
Another change advocated by the CAPs is to adjust the application and staff training plan for HEAP so that there is more time to accept calls for applications.
Because HEAP is designed to be performed year-round, both Thistle and Palmer note that it is not a crisis service, but it can feel like it works that way, especially when Mainers desperately need heat and need it. quickly.
There are other financing options to help in emergencies, such as the Heating and Heating Fund at DCP.
Thistle advises that if HEAP applicants have been scheduled for an appointment in the spring – after their energy crisis will pass – “they should not give up.”
People should maintain this agreement and have their application processed for next season and work with CAPs to meet their immediate needs.
“That means they may not be in crisis next year,” Thistle said.
To help make changes to HEAP, Downeast Community Partners and the other CAPs are participating in the HEAP regulatory process with the Maine State Housing Energy Department.
“Our goal is to jointly identify how to establish best and most effective HEAP program practices and policies across the state,” Palmer said.
A HEAP working group meeting took place on 17 February.
Next steps include distributing a summary of proposed changes to the MaineHousing Board of Commissioners on March 8 and a board meeting on April 19 to seek approval to begin the rule-making process.
A public hearing will then be held on May 17 before HEAP applications and trainings start in the summer.