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Discussions in Augusta about making heating assistance more accessible and efficient are, well, heating up. And that is a very good thing.
The frustrating mismatch between record funds and long wait times for the Home Energy Assistance Program, at a time of rising energy costs, has rightly gotten lawmakers’ attention. Rep. Raegan LaRochelle, D-Augusta, and Sen. Chip Curry, D-Belfast, have each introduced bills that would improve the administration of this important program.
LaRochelle’s bill would require the Maine State Housing Authority (MaineHousing), which administers the federally funded heating aid program, to create a working group to look into ways to improve program efficiency. It would also require MaineHousing to create an efficiency fund, and allocate $2 million to approve application waiting and approval times through steps like hiring temporary workers or buying new technology. Regional community action agencies process those applications.
“Recently, there have been reports that MaineHousing’s Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) has more money in it than ever before, and while this is great news, people are unable to receive these funds in a timely manner due to significant delays in processing and approving applications,” LaRochelle said in March 8 testimony. “This bill aims to increase ease of access to the existing assistance funds by providing support to MaineHousing and the CAP agencies who administer the funds to improve their processes.”
Curry’s bill would require the Maine heating assistance program to accept applications online.
“I believe this will speed up the application process, especially when we have the funds waiting for folks to use. I want to make sure that everyone who is eligible for help is getting to the programs to help them,” Curry testified on Feb. 28. “There should be no barriers to accessing assistance that can really help Maine families.”
Curry’s proposal in particular has appeared to be a clear and relatively simple path, though not the only path, toward processing applications faster and delivering this critical aid to the people who need it, when they need it. We believe it can help alleviate the strain on the community action agencies working hard every day to verify eligibility and get heating assistance — and other aid — out the door. And surely it can be done securely with awareness of how fraudsters have tried to take advantage of the historic levels of federal pandemic aid.
MaineHousing and the community action agencies are supportive of both bills, and the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee has advanced both proposals.
“Like you, we have been very concerned about the wait times that some of the community action agencies have been experiencing around getting people in to their initial HEAP enrollment appointments,” MaineHousing Director of Government Relations Erik Jorgensen told lawmakers Feb. 28 when testifying in support of Curry’s bill. “We have recently instituted a midcourse change in the program this current heating season, and on [Feb. 1] we made some changes to the current application procedure in an attempt to reduce the application bottleneck that some of the CAA’s are experiencing. We are also anticipating two other significant changes in the coming season — one of them is the anticipated launch of the online application for the 2023 program year; the other is to implement some form of categorical eligibility around income — if for example, you can demonstrate that you are part of a low-income aid program, your application process will be much simpler.”
Simpler, again, is a key word here. Megan Hannan, executive director of Maine Community Action Partnership, highlighted how Maine community action agencies already accept online applications for emergency rental relief. The online option “has proven very effective,” Hannan told members of the labor and housing committee.
“The software we use can be programmed to accept HEAP applications online, too,” Hannan explained. “In fact, our sister Community Action Agencies in New Jersey are already doing it, in fact are using a single, universal application as the portal to their many programs, and it is my goal to have Maine’s agencies do the same as soon as possible.”
That should be everyone’s goal — including lawmakers, who need to make sure that efficiency improvements for the heating assistance program make it over the finish line before next winter.