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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Conn. bill that would allow utilities to disconnect severely ill patients for non-payment advances

    A bill now on the floor of the Connecticut General Assembly would change the current law protecting thousands of people with life-threatening conditions from having their utilities disconnected, unless they qualify as "hardship eligible."

    Connecticut has among the highest electricity bills in the country, and they could go even higher. In February, Eversource sought a 19 percent rate hike, while United Illuminating asked for a 16 percent increase.

    Under existing law, people who have life-threatening conditions must have a physician submit a certification to their electric or gas utility provider specifying how long a patient's condition would require continuous utility access. If the patient has a permanent condition, the physician must resubmit the certification annually. This prevents utility shutoff for that duration.

    In addition, Connecticut law prohibits utilities from disconnecting service between Nov. 1 and May 1 for anyone experiencing financial hardship.

    During the legislative Energy and Technology Committee meeting last week, some committee members expressed interest in establishing an eligibility test for medical protection against utility shutoff.

    "I support the idea of getting this out of committee and working on seeing how practical it is to develop a means test," said Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, and committee co-chairman. "I strongly recommend we approve this bill."

    Others were less enthusiastic.

    "People with disabilities have medical conditions and need electricity to stay alive," Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, and committee member said. "If you cut them off for a past-due bill, they're going to die."

    The bill was moved out of committee to the floor of the General Assembly by a 17-3 vote on March 22.

    The law protecting people with life-threatening medical conditions from sudden utility disconnection dates back to 1995 when a Hartford man with a degenerative muscle condition had his electricity shut off, turning off his life support equipment. Multiple advocates submitted written testimony to the committee referencing the case where this man was found almost dead by his family, prompting widespread media coverage and the passage of the current law.

    While certification prevents shutoffs, it does not excuse patients or ratepayers from making utility payments.

    According to a 2020 review by the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, approximately 2 percent of Eversource customers and 2.4 percent of United Illuminating customers receive any sort of medical hardship protection. Of those, the vast majority have medical conditions that are considered life threatening, the review showed.

    In submitted testimony Eversource Vice President for Customer Operations Jess Cain told the legislative committee that roughly 7,000 customers with medical protection who aren't designated as having a financial hardship had unpaid bills amounting to $60 million in "bad debt costs." Eversource officials said that those costs resulted in higher bills for other ratepayers, at roughly $12 per customer over the next year.

    "Right now, customers are burdened with covering the costs of households that can afford to pay but don't," Eversource spokesperson Tricia Modifica wrote in an email. "We support H.B. 5441 as it aims to eliminate a loophole and bring greater equity and fairness to the billing process while still protecting hardship customers with medical conditions."

    PURA, in its 2020 review, found that both Eversource and UI's uncollected bills from medical hardship cost other ratepayers approximately $1 to $3 a month, respectively.

    Both United Illuminating and Eversource claimed in written testimony that they were unaware of any other states that had similar protections. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, several states, including Virginia, Montana, New York and New Hampshire have similar provisions to prohibit utility shut off for medically fragile patients.

    Claire Coleman, in submitted testimony on behalf of the Connecticut Office of Consumer Counsel told the committee that her office was concerned that as proposed, the bill did not strike the correct balance.

    "Life-threatened medical customers who comprise over 85 percent of customers who have medical protection ... would be left open to service termination if they have income over 60 percent of the State Median Income," Coleman wrote. "The propose bill language would effectively remove special protections for seriously ill medical customers."

    Advocates for the rights of the disabled and elderly were distraught in their testimony, saying that the proposed bill could have lethal consequences, particularly if someone recently developed a life-threatening medical issue.

    Bonnie Roswig, a lawyer and director of the Disability Rights Project, said the point of the protection was not about how much money people earn, but whether turning off the electricity would kill them.

    "This shouldn't have anything to do with total household income," said Roswig. "That's not the issue it's addressing. It's addressing not putting people's lives at risk."

    Roswig said that frequently, in cases where there's a major medical emergency, an accident, or a serious diagnosis, people's lives "get turned upside down" and bills often tend to pile up.

    "What happens is people cannot afford to pay their bill, they don't know what to do, so they don't do anything, and they don't pay," said Roswig. "There are affordable payment plans for customers of many different economic classes, but our position has been that this information is not appropriately communicated."

    Modifica noted that Eversource mailed people with medical protection a letter to inform them of alternate payment programs.

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