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NH’s expensive heating season is over, but it had lasting effects. Now, some are calling for change in aid programs.

Kelly Carroll, who lives in Tamworth, said she went back and forth for months with her community action agency about paperwork they said was missing — sometimes waiting a long time for responses to her emails. She said it was hard to understand why her application for fuel assistance wasn’t going through.
Mara Hoplamazian
/
NHPR
Kelly Carroll, who lives in Tamworth, said she went back and forth for months with her community action agency about paperwork they said was missing — sometimes waiting a long time for responses to her emails. She said it was hard to understand why her application for fuel assistance wasn’t going through.

Though the arrival of summer may cause last winter’s expensive heating season to fade from view, the cost of staying warm has had a lasting impact on many New Hampshire residents.

For some, getting help with bills was more difficult than usual. And the challenges the state’s main fuel assistance program faced brought to light a need to reform the way urgent heating help is distributed.

Carrie Traffie, who coordinates welfare services in southwestern New Hampshire, said this past winter was one-of-a-kind.

The price of heating fuels and electricity doubled, the cost of living was up, and Traffie was getting a lot of phone calls.

In particular, she was getting lots of calls from people asking for help paying for heat — often multiple times a week. They’d already applied for the state’s main fuel assistance program, but they were coming to her for help with bills coming due as they waited to get approved.

“They were not getting the funding in a timely fashion that they normally see it in,” she said.

New Hampshire’s community action agencies, the offices that distribute fuel assistance, faced several new challenges this year. They saw a major increase in applications. Statewide, more than 36,000 households applied for assistance, compared with about 28,300 last year.

The agencies also set up a brand-new state-funded program meant to help more people with their heating bills. And they faced staffing shortages.

Other New England states faced big increases in first-time applicants, with demand in Connecticut growing so much that a major assistance program had to pause to catch up. 

Traffie said she thinks New Hampshire’s agencies did the best they could. And welfare coordinators in some communities said they didn’t see any increase in requests for emergency assistance.

But across the state, people had to wait for help, sometimes much longer than in past years. And waiting on a request for help in the middle of winter can have big consequences.


Losing heat in winter

Kelly Carroll lives in Tamworth, in a mobile home that’s been in her family for 15 years. She applied for fuel assistance in December, like she does every year. But this year, things were different.

“We’ve never lost heat like we have this winter,” she said.

Carroll said she went back and forth for months with her community action agency about paperwork they said was missing, sometimes waiting a long time for responses to her emails. She said it was hard to understand why her application wasn’t going through.

In the meantime, she ran out of heating oil. And that’s when things got really bad.

“The town tried to rush as fast as they could to get me oil so this didn't happen, but it was below 30, and the pipes just froze,” she said. “And then when the heat came on and thawed, it just snapped and cracked.”

By the time Carroll was finally approved in March, winter was almost over. She could only use about a third of the money to fill her tank once.

She fixed two of her burst pipes, but one was too difficult to repair. In May, it was still broken, and causing bigger issues throughout the house, including water damage to her floors.

“It’s definitely not fair for anybody to go through this,” Carroll said.

Dan Tuohy
/
NHPR

Amy Muscavitz also struggled to get help with heating costs this winter. She takes care of her father, who lives in Sandwich, and helped him apply for fuel assistance last August.

“We're still pretty stressed out from it," she said. "I'm really not looking forward to having to reapply him again."

Muscavitz also went back and forth with her local community action agency. She said she would submit documents, go through the whole checklist, make sure they were correct, and then the agency would say they hadn’t received them, or she was missing something.

After five rounds of that, her father was approved in late February.

In the meantime, she helped him pay for heating oil. And his town’s welfare office covered a couple of deliveries. But, she says, it was tough.

“There was serious choices about, well, does he afford his medication this month or does he stay warm this month?” she said.

After an application is submitted, the community action agency has 30 days to issue a decision. But if someone is missing a document, or has a small mistake on their application, things can take longer.

NHPR requested data from New Hampshire’s Department of Energy on turnaround times for applications this past winter. But Chris Ellms, that agency’s deputy commissioner, said the software system used by community action agencies cannot produce that information.

“Most of the instances where applications are delayed are due to incomplete or insufficient information being submitted before eligibility can be verified and the application can be completed,” he said.

The community action agencies also do not track data on the number of people who file appeals of the agencies’ decision on their application, according to Ellms.


Time for change?

The community action agencies say during a heating emergency, when someone’s low on fuel or disconnected, they respond as soon as possible, within 48 hours.

“That's something that we did see more of this year, too, is more of those emergencies,” said Ryan Clouthier, the chief operating officer at Southern New Hampshire Services, one of the state’s five community action agencies.

He said no applicants in his area faced a delay in getting emergency assistance, but there were longer turnaround times on regular assistance applications. His staff was working nights and weekends over the winter.

“I think we're experiencing the same staffing shortages that I think everyone is right now," he said. "What we did is tried to pivot and look at other ways to fill those voids."

Clouthier said the agency had to hire temporary workers. Next year should be easier, he said. They’ll have a full staff.

But for some, this winter’s challenges revealed the need for bigger changes in the system that connects Granite Staters with fuel assistance.

“It's been a while since the state has looked over the fuel assistance rules and procedures," said Ray Burke, who directs the energy and utility justice project at New Hampshire Legal Assistance. "And I think there are some policy changes that the state could make to try to help ease the burden."

"Especially if you're dealing with a household, a working family, where they only have limited hours in the day, it can be hard to get in all the documentation that's needed for the application."
Ray Burke, who directs the energy and utility justice project at New Hampshire Legal Assistance

In New Hampshire, fuel assistance applications largely happen the old fashioned way — lots of paperwork. Most other states in New England have online applications, which could make applying quicker and more convenient.

And some states, like Connecticut and Maine, use a system called “categorical eligibility,” meaning if someone is already receiving help through certain other government programs, they don’t have to submit paperwork to verify their income.

Burke said that could reduce barriers for applicants and lead to quicker determinations.

“Oftentimes, there's just a lot of paperwork involved," he said. "And especially if you're dealing with a household, a working family, where they only have limited hours in the day, it can be hard to get in all the documentation that's needed for the application."

Ellms, with the state energy department, said they’re working with community action agencies on “improvements and efficiencies.”

Right now, a new software for the assistance programs is in the works, with an appropriation included in this year’s capital budget.

The Department of Energy is preparing to set up that computer program, and says including functions like online applications in the development of that software is under “strong consideration.”

“In the short-term, we are continuing to work with the Community Action Agencies to look at how we can find efficiencies that improve the process for applicants going into next winter,” he said.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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