Garrett Lojek of Brooks, who has applied for federal heating assistance, won't have his intake appointment until the last week in February. He keeps his furnace set at 55 degrees and relies on his woodstove to warm up his house more than that. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

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Winter in Maine is a terrible time to be left out in the cold. This week’s cold weather has been a bitter reminder of that fact.

Thankfully, there is government assistance for people who need help heating their homes and meet certain income eligibility guidelines. The Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) is federally funded, administered by the Maine State Housing Authority (MaineHousing) and applications are processed by regional community action agencies (also sometimes referred to as CAPs). This can be a particularly impactful time for this important program, with rising energy costs and unprecedented funding available.  

As the White House  highlighted recently, Maine is receiving a record $90.2 million for home energy assistance for this fiscal year between October of 2021 and Sept of 2022. That is great news, but this historic level of assistance will only be effective if it supports people when they need it. A recent Bangor Daily News story raised some questions about that.

“So many of the people that we help are so frustrated and confused by the application process for HEAP assistance that they give up,” Joe Ryan, the executive director of AIO Food & Energy Assistance, a Rockland-based nonprofit organization, told the BDN. “It’s confusing. The waits are a long time. Especially for those who are nearly empty [of fuel] and will run out of heat within a day or two, and are told that their appointments are one month or two months or three months out, they give up.”

The story detailed how some of the community assistance agencies could be booking people as far out as May for application appointments. Unlike in some other states, HEAP applicants in Maine cannot apply online. That needs to change.

MaineHousing Director Dan Brennan discussed the process for administering this aid in an interview with the BDN editorial board last week. He noted that Maine has already been able to provide supplemental payments to last year’s HEAP recipients because of extra federal funding, allowing MaineHousing to get a jump start on providing aid this winter.

“What the CAP agencies are doing is they are working to prioritize new applicants, and get them appointments faster, and therefore they have been pushing other appointments further out for people who have already been served… people who may have received that secondary payment, they’re calling them up and they’re saying, ‘Hey, would you mind if we pushed you back a month or so, so that we can take care of someone that we haven’t helped before.’ And I know that all the community action agencies are working to do that as best they can, with their scheduling systems.”

To emphasize an important point that Brennan flagged, there is an energy crisis intervention element of the heating aid for people who have less than a 3-day supply of heating fuel or are in danger of having utility service disconnected. People in those situations should call their  local community action agency and ask about that assistance.

Generally, Brennan told us that “the system is working right now” and that about $700,000 dollars a week in fuel assistance is being paid, with roughly 750-1,000 applications a week being processed. And we now understand that some applicants might agree to schedule their appointments for later in the spring because they’ve already received benefits. But Brennan could not say that all of the people having their appointments pushed far into the future are those without a need for benefits right now.

We’re not here to criticize the hardworking people at the CAPs processing these applications and making sure Mainers access the heating aid ( and other assistance) they need. But clearly the overall process needs to be made more efficient. To us, an obvious part of the answer is online applications, which could relieve some of the pressure on the CAP workforce.

“We cannot underestimate the impact that COVID has had on the workforce at the community action agencies.” Brennan said. “It’s hitting everybody. People are unable to work, or they’re at their home with their kids. And [it’s] really difficult to hire people as well, getting people into the workforce.”

He said that there are ongoing efforts to identify ways to bolster program efficiency, including by building online applications into the system.

“We are always looking to enhance the computer system,” Brennan told us. “To be honest with you, the market for the computer systems that run this program [is] not very robust in terms of, there’s not 20 different types of systems out there. But we have to keep looking at that.”

He said there have been conversations with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the community action agencies “to say look, we’ve got to come up with an online way to do this.” We could not agree more. That would seem to be a key strategy in processing applications more efficiently and reducing appointment wait times.

The time to make these system improvements is now, with unprecedented resources and sustained need for them. To state the obvious, a May application appointment doesn’t keep someone warm in January.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...