Mainers will find the State’s heating assistance program difficult to navigate this heating season because long waitlists, bureaucratic handwringing, and delays in the creation of an online application portal.
The Maine Wire’s investigation of the Low-Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP) program found that the non-profit agencies administering the program in partnership with the Maine House Authority rarely answer the phones, often don’t return phone calls, and, when they do, appointments to determine eligibility for the program can’t happen for three months or more.
The application process was supposed to be an easy online experience following an emergency bill passed in the spring. A bipartisan group of lawmakers overwhelmingly passed LD 1966 – “An Act to Facilitate Access to Heating Assistance” – in April.
The bill directed the Maine Housing Authority, an independent quasi-governmental non-profit, to create an online application portal that would allow low-income Mainers to easily apply for LIHEAP.
That hasn’t happened yet and it’s unclear why not.
Spokesmen from Gov. Janet Mills’ office did not respond to an inquiry.
The problems with distributing funding for LIHEAP aren’t new. In January, left-wing groups warned MainePublic.org that about 20 percent of eligible Mainers were actually receiving assistance.
At the time, Maine Housing Authority Director Dan Brennan said he agreed that an online application system would be helpful. But it’s been more than nine months since the initial problem drew attention and LIHEAP applicants still don’t have an online option.
Maine Housing Authority Communications Director Scott Thistle couldn’t say why the website has not gone live yet, but said the site was in development and would launch by November’s end.
“To your question why we don’t have this yet, the answer is we are working on it and the bottom line is the online application is on the launch pad and I believe it has a trial run next week, then it will go live with all the CAAs by the end of November,” he said in an email.
“But with any big new online thing, the system engineers want to stage the rollout so they can make sure it works well before they launch it fully,” he said.
According to Maine Equal Justice Partner Policy Advisor Chris Hasted told MPBN the cause of the delay was a breakdown in communication between Maine Housing Authority and the Dept. of Health and Human Services over the mechanics of the website. At issue was how the website would validate identifying information and eligibility requirements, such as annual income.
In the absence of an easy online option, those Mainers seeking heating assistance as temperatures begin to dip and oil prices skyrocket must instead navigate through a “Community Action Project” non-profit. But working with many of the non-profits is far from easy and waitlists are very long.
For example, a call to Penquis Community Action Project was kept on hold 14 minutes before an employee answered the phone. The earliest available appointment was Jan. 25. The employee said there were currently 152 residents on the “cancellation list,” which means they were hoping to scoop up an earlier appointment in the event someone ahead of them in line cancelled.
“The longer you wait, the later it’s going to be,” the employee said.
A call placed to Community Concepts Inc’s Lewiston office rang several times, then went silent for 30 seconds before ringing again. An employee picked up the phone and patched us through to an automated voicemail box. An employee called back the same day and said appointments were now being booked for close to the end of December.
A phone call placed to Cumberland County’s “Opportunity Alliance” was not answered, but instead led to a prompt to leave a message in a voicemail box. That call was not returned after two days. Ditto for the Aroostook County Action Program.
York County Community Action Project returned a phone call the same day. They were able to book appointments at the end of November.
At Downeast Community Partners, an automated phone tree directed those facing a home heating emergency to leave a voicemail and call back if they don’t hear from the agency within three days.
Western Maine Community Action promptly returned the phone call and said a separate phone call would come after the end of November to begin the enrollment process. In emergency situations, however, funding was now available, including the “50 for 50” program in which residents can get 50 gallons of heating oil in exchange for a $50 money order.
The bureaucratic maze, waitlists, and delays could have been avoided with a simple website like the one the Legislature voted to approve.
In September, the Mills Administration touted an additional $8 million in funding for the LIHEAP program provided by the federal government; however, the additional funding means little if the mismanaged web portal and bureaucratic breakdowns mean Mainers can’t enter the program until January.
State Sen. Chip Curry (D-Waldo) did not respond to questions about why the bill he sponsored hadn’t led to the creation of a LIHEAP application web portal in time for the start of the 2022-2023 heating season.
“You would hope a bipartisan, emergency bill would be implemented quicker,” said State Sen. Stacey Guerin (R-Penobscot). “Especially when high heating costs pushed by Democrat policies have left Mainers with no choice but to turn down the thermostat and wear jackets.”
“It’s another failure by the Mills Administration,” said Guerin.
“It reminds me of the handling of unemployment claims when the ineptness of the Labor Department left Mainers without pay,” she said. “And now we’re leaving them without heat.”
LIHEAP is not designed as an emergency program but is instead a social safety net program. Resources are available to Mainers in need of emergency heating assistance, and those who are facing an emergency do receive priority attention from Maine Housing Authority’s non-profit partners. If you or someone you know is struggling to heat their home due to high oil costs, you can find resources here.