Customers are often protected against a utility company's shutting off or terminating their service, even if they cannot afford to pay their bills. These special protections are discussed below.
Electric, Gas, and Water
Electric, gas, and private water companies20 cannot shut off your service if you, your child, or someone else in your household is seriously ill and you cannot afford to pay your bills because of financial hardship.21 The utility companies must treat any medical condition that a doctor considers a serious illness as a serious illness. Serious illness can include psychiatric health problems such as major depression, anxiety disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It can also include chronic physical health problems such as diabetes, asthma, and fibromyalgia. Or, it can be a temporary serious illness such as pneumonia or the flu.
To protect yourself against a shut-off, you should take the following steps as soon as possible:
- Contact your doctor, physician's assistant, nurse practitioner, or the local Board of Health and explain your situation. Ask them to immediately contact the utility company by phone and tell the company that you are or someone in your household is seriously ill. Make sure the doctor or Board of Health has your name and address to give to the utility.
Within seven days of this initial phone contact, the doctor or Board of Health must send a letter to the utility company certifying the illness. See the sample letter (Form 6) and sample form letter (Form 7) that can be given to your doctor to fill out. Tell your doctor to include the words "serious illness" in the letter and to describe the illness. If it is a chronic or long-term illness, the doctor should include the words "chronic illness" in the letter. A letter that states that the illness is a "chronic illness" will result in 180 days of protection before you have to renew, while a letter that does not state this will result in only 90 days of protection. If you are uncomfortable having the utility know the type of illness, a letter from the medical practitioner that simply includes the words “serious illness” or “chronic” may be sufficient.
If the company refuses to honor the initial phone call from the doctor, physician's assistant, nurse practitioner, or Board of Health, report this immediately to the Department of Public Utilities (DPU)'s Consumer Division and request that the DPU order the company to continue your service.
- Contact the company and ask them to send you a financial hardship form. You must complete and submit this form as proof that you are unable to pay the amount you owe.
- Your doctor, physician's assistant, nurse practitioner, or the Board of Health will need to send a new letter at the end of the protected period (180 days for an illness certified as chronic and 90 days for an illness not certified as chronic). You can have a doctor or the Board of Health renew serious illness letters for as long as you need help.
Telephone customers are eligible for a similar "serious illness" protection. However, the doctor's letter must be renewed every 30 days even if the illness is specified as chronic, with a maximum of two renewals (a maximum total of 90 days of protection). By the end of the protection period, you must either pay the total amount owed or enter into a payment plan with the company in order to prevent shut-off.
You can also receive up to 30 days of protection when there is a "personal emergency" in which lack of access to a phone endangers the health or safety of a household member.22
A personal emergency can include domestic violence or threats from a past abuser, or any other crisis or threat that requires access to a phone. If you need protection from shut-off because of an emergency, you must write a letter to the company explaining your emergency and why you are unable to pay your bills. You should also call the company and alert a Customer Service representative to your situation. By the end of the 30-day protection period, you must either pay the amount that you owe or enter into a payment plan with the company.
If you have difficulty getting a phone company to protect your account from shut-off based on a serious illness or personal emergency, call the DTC Consumer Division. Even though there are regulations that set certain time limits as to when the telephone company is required to give protection, if you need protection you should try to persuade the company to extend the protection period.
Electric and Gas
Electric and gas companies cannot shut off your service between November 15 and March 15 if you cannot afford to pay your utility bills and if the service is used to heat your house. (This March 15 end-date is often extended to April 1 by the DPU). To get the protection, you need only to fill out a financial hardship form.23
If you think you may have trouble paying winter heat bills, call your company and ask them to send you a financial hardship form. Fill it out and return it as soon as possible. After you do this, you are protected against a shut-off between November 15 and March 15 (or a later date, if the DPU extends the winter moratorium).
Electric, Gas, and Water
Electric, gas, and private water companies cannot shut off your service if you cannot afford to pay your bill and if there is an infant under one year old living in your house.24To get this protection, you must submit a financial hardship form. You must also prove your child's age, through a birth certificate, letter, or official document from a physician, hospital, government agency, clergyman, or religious institution.
Electric, Gas, Water, and Telephone
If you and all the adult members of your household are 65 years or older, it is very difficult for a company to shut off utility service—so difficult that it almost never happens. (If the elderly household is also low-income, the prohibition on terminating service is definite). The rules covering electric, gas, water, and telephone service shut-offs for elderly households require the following:25
- Companies must establish procedures to identify households in which all adult members are 65 or older. To protect yourself, you should notify the utility company if every adult in your household is 65 or older.
- Companies must allow elderly households to identify a third-party contact person who can warn them if a utility company threatens to shut off service. To get this protection, contact your utility company and ask for a Third Party Notification Form. You can name a friend, relative, or home-care provider as a third party. After you give a company this form, the company must then notify your third party of all overdue bills and shut-off notices. This third party is not legally responsible for paying your bill.
- Companies cannot shut off service to elderly households without written permission from the DPU. Because this would involve a hearing before the DPU, companies rarely even request permission to shut off service to elders.
20. Private water companies are regulated by DPU and are generally in more rural areas. The city/town public water departments are not regulated by the state and no state-law protections against terminations apply. The exception to this may be if you are a tenant and the property owner is billing you for water. Under G.L. c. 186, 22(l) property owners are prohibited from shutting off your water or refusing you water service, even if you are late in paying the water bill or have not paid your water bill. The water company, whether it is a private or a public water company, still, however, has remedies against the owner for nonpayment of the water bill.
22. Regulations protecting telephone consumers are contained in DPU 18448. If you cannot access the link to the regulations they are available at no charge from the National Consumer Law Center, 617-542-8010. The serious illness provisions discussed in this section are in DPU 18448, Rules 5.15, 5.16. The personal emergency rule is 5.17.