BANGOR, Maine — The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has released an initial $33.7 million in Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, funds, members of Maine’s congressional delegation announced Monday.

The funding will help low-income and elderly Mainers heat their homes this winter, Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King said in a joint statement.

Last week, in an effort to help millions of Americans who are struggling with their energy bills as winter approaches, Collins and King were among a bipartisan group of 40 senators who wrote to the administration requesting the immediate release of the federal heating aid funds.

“The LIHEAP programs assists some eight million households nationwide; nearly 50,000 in Maine,” Collins said. “As energy costs have increased, LIHEAP remains an important lifeline that helps prevent people from having to choose between heating their home, paying their bills or going without food or medicine.

“I am pleased that DHHS recognized our concern and is releasing this critical funding today,” said Collins who, along with Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI, worked to include language in the continuing resolution to fund LIHEAP at the higher Fiscal Year 2012 approved level of $3.47 billion.

The funding, however, remains subject to automatic, across-the-board sequestration cuts, which both senators oppose and support addressing.

“Maine’s bitterly cold winters present serious challenges for our state’s most vulnerable families, who often end up having to confront the choice of whether to pay the ever-increasing heating bill or provide for everyday necessities,” said King. “I am pleased that DHHS heeded our call to release these critical funds now, which will help tens of thousands of Mainers to stay warm while still being able to make ends meet.”

U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree also weighed in on the matter.

“LIHEAP is an important lifeline for Mainers struggling to make ends meet and stay warm during the winter months. While I have pushed to fully fund the LIHEAP program, the funding announced today provides our state the certainty it needs to plan for the upcoming heating season,” said Michaud, who has asked that the Appropriations Committee fully fund the LIHEAP program at $5.1 billion.

“We’ve heard from so many families and seniors who are struggling to put heating oil in the tank and aren’t sure how they are going to get through the winter,” noted Pingree. “The money being released to Maine is good news but the truth is that the LIHEAP funding passed by Congress isn’t enough. The economy is still tough and oil prices are still high. We need to come up with more money to help families heat their homes.”

LIHEAP is a federal grant program that provides states with annual funding for home energy assistance programs for low-income households. Besides helping to pay energy bills for low-income families and the elderly, LIHEAP helps to fund energy crisis intervention programs, low-cost residential weatherization and other energy-related home repairs.

Recently, the U.S. Energy Information Administration released its Winter Fuels Outlook report. The report projects that household expenditures for natural gas, propane and electric heating will be higher this winter. Home heating oil prices are expected to be modestly lower. The report also noted that the Northeast is expected to be 3 percent colder than last winter.