Pa. pauses distributing cash grants for heating bills amid federal budget delay

The state is continuing to accept applications and distribute crisis grants to households at immediate risk of losing heat.

Listen 1:23
A transformer station.

A transformer station. (U.S. Dept. of Energy/Flickr)

Have a question about Philly’s neighborhoods or the systems that shape them? PlanPhilly reporters want to hear from you! Ask us a question or send us a story idea you think we should cover.

Pennsylvania has paused giving out some grants that help low-income residents pay their heating bills.

Months of budget holdups in Washington delayed part of the state’s federal allocation for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP. The gap comes as the state’s winter moratorium on shutoffs for low-income customers nears its end on March 31.

“LIHEAP funding is critical right now,” said Joline Price, an energy attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. “Towards the end of March and early April, … that’s when we see a real uptick in people dealing with these shut-off notices and needing assistance.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, provides two types of grants, both of up to $1,000 in Pennsylvania.

One grant, known as the cash grant, helps people pay their heating bills. The other, known as the crisis grant, is for emergencies — like when a household receives a shutoff notice or has a broken heater — to prevent termination or get service restored. Both are reserved for people making below 150% the federal poverty income guidelines — $21,870 for an individual and ​$45,000 for a family of four.

Pa. will continue to distribute crisis grants to families in danger of being without heat. But the state is pausing cash grants until Congress passes the current fiscal year appropriations bill for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Lawmakers are working toward a deal on the funding ahead of a shutdown deadline this Friday.

“We believe this temporary funding gap can be resolved, and the LIHEAP season is not closed,” said Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary Dr. Val Arkoosh. “Once we receive the remaining funds, we will continue to assist individuals in need until the end of the season. If you or someone you know needs help or could benefit from this program, I still encourage you to apply for LIHEAP today.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Because Congress has not yet passed the relevant appropriations more than five months into the fiscal year, Pennsylvania and other states are missing 10% of this season’s federal LIHEAP funds, officials said. Pennsylvania’s funding gap amounts to around $21 million.

The state’s cash grant program generally serves more people than its crisis program. Last LIHEAP season, more than 300,000 households received the cash grant and 135,000 households the crisis grant, according to DHS. As of March 2, more than 18,000 cash applications and 350 crisis applications were pending.

Earlier this month, members of Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commissioner wrote a letter to the state’s congressional delegation urging them to ensure the last 10% would be released, in order to prevent the state from needing to delay the program or close it early.

“We need to keep the heat on for the income-eligible families and seniors who are counting on this assistance,” PUC Commissioner Kathryn Zerfuss said in a statement.

Even if families find a way to pay their heating bills without the LIHEAP grants, it could have ripple effects on their other expenses, Price said.

“That would mean maybe forgoing money that would go to other necessities including rents, mortgages, food or prescription medication,” she said.

An even bigger problem than the budget delay is the fact that states will likely get less funding this year than they did last year, said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. The LIHEAP budget got a boost from COVID-linked funds the past two fiscal years, Wolfe said. He expects Pennsylvania to receive just the base LIHEAP funding amount when lawmakers finalize this year’s budget — roughly a third lower than the amount the state received last fiscal year.

“This is another nail in the coffin of helping low-income families pay their basic expenses,” he said. “It’s a big loss.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services will keep accepting and processing applications for both types of LIHEAP assistance through April 5.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal