Escalating Heating Costs Force Difficult Choices

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The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) is putting the pressure on Congress to pass legislation to put more money into energy programs offering discounts to seniors and others on low incomes.

Tim Gearan of AARP in Washington, D.C. says his organization is lobbying Congress to implement a plan to help seniors who may have trouble paying their heating bills this year.

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Visitors at the Payson Senior Center discuss many things during their time together. One item on their collective minds these days is how they will pay for their rising heating bills this winter.

"We all know that heating bills are going to be higher this year, especially after the hurricanes. Well, it's time for members of Congress to step up and increase funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)," said Gearan.

Last year, Congress appropriated $2.1 billion in funding for the program. This year, AARP estimates it will take about $5.2 billion to avoid hardships due to the unusually high cost of heating oil.

The most recent figures from 2003 show there were 27,646 households in Arizona that received the federal assistance. Gearan believes there are many more Arizonans eligible for the program this year.

Gearan said the Department of Energy reports that heating bills will leap by as much as 50 percent this winter. He said that means millions of low-income households are facing an imminent emergency that may force them to choose between heat and other essentials, such as food and medicines.

"This year, Americans are expected to face the largest one-year increase in home heating prices in three decades," said Lupe Solis of AARP Arizona.

"Before they head off on their holiday vacations, we are asking Congress to fully fund the low-income heating assistance program to avoid widespread hardship."

Many Payson seniors are concerned about the high cost of heating. "If it's got to be, it's got to be, on account of the oil prices going up," said Mary Triphahn. "I like to keep my house warm. I'm hoping to keep my bills down though, since I'm on a fixed income and I'm retired."

According to AARP, "A recent survey by the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association found that households receiving LIHEAP assistance had to sacrifice to pay energy bills. The survey found that 32 percent of LIHEAP households reported they did not fill a prescription, or took less than a full dose, due to high-energy bills.

"I don't like it, especially when you get one check to cover you for a month," said Evelyn Joyce Wright. "It will take it all to pay my utility bills. I'm on a fixed income. I get a Social Security check once a month."

"I use propane gas," she said. "I haven't turned on the heat yet. It's cold in my house at night, but it's hard to pay a high bill. So, I'm wearing more clothes during the day and at certain times I don't put my pajamas on, I just sleep in my clothes."

"The LIHEAP program has literally been a lifesaver for the poor, elderly and the disabled," said Solis, "but unless all Americans speak out, millions of households could be left out in the cold this winter."

"I am concerned where the money will come from if the costs do go up. I can always cut my grocery spending to pay for the heating costs, since I have a big belly anyhow," joked Ted Adams.

"Older Americans devote a higher percentage of total household spending to residential energy costs, with a quarter of low-income, older households spending nearly 20 percent or more of their entire income on home energy bills," said Solis.

"We don't want low-income seniors to have to make choices that may endanger their health," she added.

In Payson, Arizona Public Service has two assistance programs to help low-income people pay their utility bills. A staff member at Energy West said its company does not offer low-income subsidies, but advises customers in need to contact the Gila County Community Action Program (CAP).

CAP provides energy assistance funding to Gila County residents who are seniors or who have a low income. If you wish to learn whether you qualify for the CAP, you may telephone (928) 474-1759 for more information.

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