Senior Legal Aid offering help

When it’s downright cold outside and you’ve fallen behind on paying your utilities, are you protected from shut-off by the utility company during the winter months?

Electric and gas utilities are not permitted to shut off a customer for non-payment between November and the end of March.

If you reach the point of not being able to pay the full balance owed on the bill, you can contact the utility company and request an installment payment plan.

Certain utility companies, like natural gas and electricity, are required by law to work with you to develop a reasonable installment plan if you request it. Many have online information which makes that easier to do.

Electric companies, for example, may consider factors including the amount of the bill, the customer’s ability to pay, payment history, how long the balance has been outstanding and why, and other relevant factors.

If you are not able to get the company to offer a plan you can afford, you can appeal the decision to the Public Service Commission at 800-642-8544. As long as you pay the current bill, the utility cannot terminate your service, pending the appeal.

However, if your service does get cut off and you pay the entire balance owed, the gas or electric company has to turn your service back on within eight hours.

While utility companies also offer year-round budget plans, many customers will try to get through the winter months by paying as they go because there are various nonprofit and religious-affiliated groups which can help with winter costs, but not summer costs.

There are also public benefit programs to help with oil, wood, electric or gas heating expenses.

Through the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, qualified low-income customers can be helped by a 20% discount on their utility bill or have payments made through the Low Income Energy Assistance Program to the utility on their behalf.

The consumer must contact their county DHHR office to qualify.

Some utility companies also sponsor emergency payment programs for customers who have experienced a recent financial hardship. For example, Appalachian Energy, Dominion Energy WV, and Mon Power participate in the Dollar Energy Program, as explained at www.dollarenergy.org. The emergency funds are distributed by community-based organizations.

For those with medical conditions that involve the use of life-sustaining equipment operated electrically, calling the utility company to provide that information is vital to ensure the year-round protections needed.

Also, those with severe health problems can have their physician certify that heat is needed by the patient and that termination would be dangerous for their health. Such a certification can delay the shut-off for 30 days.

For free assistance with utility or other legal questions, call West Virginia Senior Legal Aid at 800-229-5068. You must be age 60 or older and live in the state to speak with the staff attorney.