WILKES-BARRE —With temperatures dropping and thermostat settings rising, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey is urging the early release of heating assistance funds. He also raised concerns Thursday that 75 percent of eligible applicants who won’t get any help.
Of the 1.5 million Pennsylvanians eligible for funds from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) in 2012, Casey said only 384,000 received an allocation. Luzerne County residents received nearly $7 million in LIHEAP funds.
“That’s a huge gap,” Casey said during a teleconference Thursday. “And it needs to be rectified.”
“We need to get the dollars out the door so people can get heat,” Casey said. “The sooner they get the money to help pay their heating bills, the sooner they can spend money elsewhere and that helps the economy.”
Casey wants to expedite the release of the heating assistance funds to assure senior citizens and other vulnerable Pennsylvanians are kept warm during the winter months.
Casey unveiled a letter he and 40 bipartisan members of the Senate are sending to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius urging the department to expedite LIHEAP funds.
Kait Gillis, director of communications at the state Department of Public Welfare, said Monday is the official kickoff for the LIHEAP program. Applications can be made starting at 12:01 a.m., she said.
“We advise people to sign up as soon as possible,” Gillis said. “Allocations are made on a first-come, first-serve basis.”
The PA Department of Public Welfare administers LIHEAP. There are three funding categories: cash benefits to assist eligible households pay for fuel, crisis payments to address household energy-related emergencies and weatherization and energy conservation projects.
Casey said it’s a basic and fundamental function of government to help people who need assistance.
“And it’s a function of both political parties,” he said. “There are some in Washington who don’t believe that. Some folks in Washington do a lot of talking, but forget who receives these funds.”
Casey said 33.4 percent of LIHEAP recipients are senior citizens; 18.5 percent are children under 5; and 28.5 percent have disabilities.
“What are you to do with senior citizens and children who are freezing in their homes?” he asked. “What’s your answer Mr. or Mrs. Politician? If you can’t answer that, look for another job. These type programs should be above politics and pontificating. It’s time to put pressure on politicians.”
Casey noted that LIHEAP funding was $3.47 billion in 2012, down from $4.7 billion in 2011.
“We need to increase the allocation,” he said. “We have been slashing these programs year after year and some think we will somehow have a better economy. That’s just not true.”
U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, said he wants everyone eligible for programs like LIHEAP to receive funding, but he said he wants to rid the programs of fraud so that those who don’t need the help won’t receive it.
“We know that many people receive funding who don’t need help,” Barletta said. “Let’s cut programs like the Institute of Peace, which has been trying to bring peace to the Middle East for years. How is that working out? I think deserving people would rather heat their homes.”
Barletta said too many federal programs are mismanaged and funding is often distributed to people who do not meet the basic eligibility requirements.