LANSING (AP) - Michigan residents needing help with their utility bills as the weather cools must wait until November to apply, a change that coincides with an effort to keep customers from waiting to ask for assistance until facing a service shutoff.
From Nov. 1 through May 31, people will qualify for help when they get a past-due notice and no longer have to wait until they accumulate so many warnings that their utilities could be cut off. Until now, residents had been able to apply for assistance year-round, often in October with the start of the new state budget.
"They're going to be denied. So they need to know that Nov. 1 is the first application date," state Department of Human Services spokesman Dave Akerly told The Associated Press.
The primary goal of the law changes, which Gov. Rick Snyder approved in January, is to help customers become more self-sufficient by encouraging them to address their unpaid bills earlier before they get way behind, Akerly said. While the government helps residents in a pinch, benefits are capped at a yearly amount.
"That's when the spiral starts for a lot of our clients," Akerly said. "We want to see if we can avoid that during the season of the year we know is the toughest in terms of cost and having to keep the household heated."
Advocates generally approve of helping people before they are at risk of losing service but say they received little to no heads up from the state about implementing the changes. Call centers across Michigan have been "slammed" with calls from "a lot of really scared people" turned away by the state, said Tom Page, executive director of Michigan 2-1-1, which links callers with social services.
"The way the policy change has been implemented, it's created this gap of 31 days in October when people expecting to have their bills paid are having their power shut off," he said. "It just would have been a lot easier if there had been a heads up."
In recent years, federal funding for low-income heating assistance peaked in the recession but has dropped precipitously in Michigan, which also has contended with a similar state fund being declared void by an appeals court. In response, state lawmakers in June created a new fund and authorized regulators to add up to a $1 monthly surcharge to utility bills to help low-income customers.
To qualify for energy assistance, people receiving federal or state aid must make less than 150 percent of the poverty line - roughly $35,000 for a family of four and $17,000 for an individual.
"It's good that the Legislature found a funding solution and that folks do not have to wait until they are on the brink of a utility shutoff to receive energy assistance. We are worried, however, that some families who thought they could get help this month will be left out in the cold and told to wait until November," said Judy Putnam, spokeswoman for the Michigan League for Public Policy, an advocacy group for the poor.
The sponsor of the law, Republican Sen. Bruce Caswell of Hillsdale, plans to hold a legislative hearing Tuesday to take testimony about how the changes are working.