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Hartford - Municipal electric companies in Connecticut say a growing number of people are abusing a state law that protects those with serious or life-threatening illnesses from having their electricity shut off during the winter months because they can't afford to pay the bill.
The small power companies claim the abuse threatens their ability to provide low-cost, reliable electricity to their customers.
"Unfortunately, in recent years, it has become very evident that there are some who are cheating the system and thereby putting a well-intended program in jeopardy," Ken Sullivan, director of utilities at the Borough of Jewett City's Department of Public Utilities, recently told members of the General Assembly's Energy and Technology Committee. Sullivan said he's seen customers laughing when they hand over a medical note that says they have a serious illness "for the sole purpose of not paying their respective electric bill."
Despite such claims, advocates for the needy contend they're not aware of any rampant abuse and have voiced strong concern about the utilities wanting the ability to dispute whether a customer's medical assessment is legitimate and attempting to limit access to the program.
"I work with low-income customers and have never seen an abuse of the winter moratorium protection," said Lee-Ann Gomes, supervisor of Social Work at Norwich Human Services, where she has worked for the past 29 years. Instead, Gomes said, her office has helped to get power restored to elderly and disabled clients who are unaware of the program, sometimes suffering in freezing homes and apartments.
It's questionable whether lawmakers will act during this year's legislative session on the thorny issue, the subject of meetings over the past few months among lawmakers, the utilities, state officials and stakeholders. Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, co-chairman of the energy committee, said he didn't expect the panel to act on it Tuesday at its next scheduled gathering.
Duff said he asked those who participated in the meetings to come up with a compromise, but they hadn't produced one as of late last week.
"While I believe that there is some abuse of the system, and it is greatly affecting our municipal electric districts, that abuse is not recognized by many others at the state Capitol," Duff said.
"We knew that it could be a controversial issue because nobody wants to have people who don't have the ability to pay their electric bill get shut off. But we also want to curb any issues that are out there," he said. "It's a tricky line to walk."
The bill proposed by the utilities would allow them to verify an applicant's income and liquid assets, change the definition of a "life-threatening" situation, set a limit of $10,000 in liquid assets that can be owned by adult members of the household and allow a utility to contest the validity of a life-threatening or serious illness certification issued by a physician with the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.
Jennifer Castonguay of Bristol questions the need for such legislation. Castonguay, who has multiple sclerosis and is unable to work, has used the hardship program and said she ultimately had to pay off her debt to Connecticut Light and Power through a payment program.
"This is by no means trying to get out of your bill. All it does is prevent them from turning it off when you get behind," she said. "This doesn't make your bills go away."
Raphael Podolsky, staff attorney for the Legal Assistance Resource Center of Connecticut Inc., said in written testimony that if participating customers fail to comply with their repayment plan, their service can be terminated. He said it's substantially the same protection for any other customer facing termination.
Podolsky also stressed that even though someone is certified by a doctor as having a life-threatening situation, it doesn't mean a utility company is prevented from taking action to collect a bill or money from a customer.
"It only precludes use of the one collection method that puts the life of the customer at risk - shutoff," he said. "The company can get a small claims judgment and enforce it by such means as bank account execution or placement of a lien on the home."