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Getting Help Paying Your Bills

 

Payment Plans

Many customers cannot afford to pay their utility bills and are not eligible for any of the special protections against shut-offs previously discussed in the section in this chapter called Special Protections Against Shut-offs. If you find yourself in this situation, you still are eligible for a payment plan.

Utility companies must provide customers with payment plans that allow a customer to take several months to pay overdue bills.32You have the absolute right to spread payment of overdue bills over a minimum of four months.

Do not agree to pay more in a shorter amount of time if you cannot afford it. If your budget does not allow you to pay the balance in four months, you should ask for a longer amount of time. Try to work out an acceptable payment plan with the company.

If you qualify for the discount rate and/or fuel assistance (see the sections below) and have not received them, tell the company that you will apply and that this will reduce your future bills. This should make the company willing to negotiate a better payment plan (such as requiring less money up-front), since it indicates that you will be in a better position to make payments in the future.

Finally, you may be able to reduce the amount that you owe the company, and thereby get the company to agree to a better payment plan, by getting the low-income discount applied retroactively to your account. For more information see the following section, Discount Rates.

If the utility company won't allow you enough time to pay your overdue bill, call the DPU and say that you want a longer payment plan than the company is offering because you can't afford to pay more quickly.

Discount Rates

Getting Discounted Rates on Future Bills

State law requires all non-municipal electric and gas companies to provide discounted rates to low-income customers who receive or are eligible for public benefits.33You can get a discount on your electric and gas bills if your income is at or below 60% of state median income (see the chart Massachusetts State Median Income) and you receive any benefits under any income-tested benefits program, including (but not limited to) the following benefits:

  • TAFDC, cash assistance,
  • EAEDC, cash assistance,
  • SSI, cash assistance,
  • State Veterans Services benefits,
  • Women, Infant & Children (WIC) benefits,
  • Emergency Assistance shelter benefits,
  • SNAP benefits (formerly Food Stamps),
  • MassHealth,
  • Refugee Resettlement Program benefits,
  • Fuel assistance (LIHEAP),
  • Certain kinds of veterans' benefits, or
  • If your child is enrolled in Head Start or the School Breakfast or School Lunch Program.

The discounted rates can lower your bills by roughly 25%, and therefore can save you a substantial amount of money each year. You can also get discounts from most local telephone companies if you receive:

  • TAFDC, cash assistance,
  • EAEDC, cash assistance,
  • SSI, cash assistance,
  • MassHealth Basic or Standard,
  • SNAP benefits (formerly Food Stamps),
  • Fuel assistance (LIHEAP),
  • Head Start, if living on tribal lands.

The "Lifeline" discount is approximately $18 per month off basic local service.34

Getting the Discounts Applied Retroactively

There are three different ways that discount rates can be applied retroactively.

First, some companies routinely put customers who receive fuel assistance onto the discount rates as of November 1, regardless of when the customer actually applies for and gets approved for fuel assistance during the winter months.

Note

While there are no rules or regulations that require companies to do this, some companies will do this if requested.

Second, if you apply on your own to get the discount rates, you should be (but generally are not) placed on the discount rate back to the day of application. For example, if the company takes two months to process the discount rate application, you should not lose two months of the discount, but should instead ask to be placed on the discount rate as of the date of your application. But, again, there are no rules or regulations that require the company to do so.

Third, every company in the state has voluntarily agreed that it will place customers on the discount rate retroactively if the customer has in fact been eligible for the rate for some period of time but did not know to apply. Customers themselves cannot call the company to ask for this type of retroactive application of the discount. Only advocates can do so, on behalf of their clients-customers, and only certain specified individuals at the companies will respond to these requests. If you are an advocate and need more information about how to contact the company, call Charlie Harak at National Consumer Law Center at 617-542-8010.

Arrearage Management Programs

Each electric and gas company offers an “Arrearage Management Program” (AMP).  In an AMP, the company provides a credit against overdue amounts (arrearages) every time the customer pays the current monthly bill.  

For example, if a customer owes $1,200 and the company estimates that the customer’s bills will be $1,800 over the next 12 months ($150 per month), the AMP generally works as follows: the company bills the customer the $150 every month, levelizing the bills so they are the same every month. Every time the customer makes a payment of $150, the company provides a credit against the overdue amount, often 1/12 of that amount. In this case, the credit would be $100 (1/12 of the $1,200 arrearage) every time the customer makes a payment. While the details vary from company to company, the concept is the same: customers are rewarded with credits against the arrearage every time they pay the current monthly bill.

To find out how to enroll in your company’s AMP, call the customer service number on your bill.

Fuel Assistance Program

The state operates a fuel assistance program that assists low-income households in paying their heating-related bills. The program is run by the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). Gas customers are eligible for fuel assistance only if they use gas for home heating. Electric customers are eligible if they heat with electricity and sometimes may receive payments on the electric bill if they use electricity to operate their heating system; for example, if the motors or fans on an oil-fired furnace run on electricity. For those who heat with oil, propane, kerosene, coal, or wood, the program pays whichever company delivers that fuel.

All households earning less than 60% of state median income are financially eligible for fuel assistance. The chart Massachusetts State Median Income will tell you, based on your family size, whether you are financially eligible.

The actual amount of assistance has varied somewhat over the past several years. The amount that you receive will depend on your income, household size, and whether you live in subsidized housing.

You must apply for fuel assistance between November and April. To find out where to apply in your area, call 800-632-8175 or see Cold Relief Information.

Private Sources

Many utility companies voluntarily participate in a program called the Good Neighbor Fund, run by the Salvation Army.

This fund provides modest payments to help people pay their gas, electric, and oil bills. To be eligible for payments, a family must have income between 60% and 80% of the state median income. To find out more about the Good Neighbor Fund, contact your local Salvation Army or see Good Neighbor Fund.

In addition to the Good Neighbor Fund, there are statewide and local charities that sometimes help people with their heating bills. There is no central listing of all of these charitable sources, but a good place to start is by calling the United Way, the local chapter of St. Vincent dePaul or local churches.

In addition, Citizens' Energy often provides up to 100 gallons of free oil (or a sharply discounted price on an oil purchase), usually through the local community action programs and other agencies that operate the fuel assistance program. To learn more about the Citizens' Energy Program, contact your local fuel assistance agency.

Relocation Benefits

The Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) will pay up to $1,000 to help get permanent housing for some families who are leaving a shelter or a teen living program. This benefit may be used for advance rent, security deposit, rent or utility arrears, moving expenses or other relocation costs. The relocation benefit is available through a DTA worker for:

  • a family receiving TAFDC cash assistance or EAEDC cash assistance who has been in emergency shelter for 60 days or more,
  • a family receiving TAFDC cash assistance who has been in a domestic violence shelter for 60 days or more, or
  • a teen parent age 18 or 19 who has been in a teen living program for 60 days or more and can live independently.35

You can get the $1,000 relocation benefit only once in a 12-month period. But it is not an Emergency Assistance (EA) benefit and will not disqualify you from receiving an EA benefit within the 12-month period. For more information, see the Emergency Assistance Advocacy Guide prepared by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

In addition, certain families moving out of EA shelter are eligible to receive up to $6,000 of HomeBASE Household Assistance to help with relocation expenses. And families who are eligible for EA shelter, but choose instead to receive HomeBASE Household Assistance can receive up to $4,000 to help them secure housing.

There are other relocation resources for families and individuals, whether or not they are in shelter. One such program is Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT). Individuals who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) may be eligible for state-funded Special Benefits of up to $150 in moving costs to move within the state if the current living situation has been certified as substandard; a move is required due to health, safety, or other conditions; or the individual is moving into subsidized housing. Special Benefits for SSI recipients may also be available to cover the cost of replacing furniture, household equipment, food, clothing, or supplies lost as a result of a fire or other natural disaster. Ask about Special Benefits at your local DTA office. Or see Part 5 of the Emergency Assistance Advocacy Guide.

Endnotes

32 220 C.M.R. §25.01(2) (definition of "payment plan"), §25.02(6).

33 G.L. c. 164, §1F(4)(i); 220 C.M.R. §14.03(2A).

34 The following phone companies provide the discounts, and others may as well: Verizon, RCN, Granby Telephone and Telegraph Company, Richmond Telephone Company, and Taconic Telephone Corp.

35 106 C.M.R. § 705.350.


Produced by Charlie Harak
Last updated January 2014


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