What to do when a utility threatens to shut off service lifestyle eagletribune.com gas vs diesel cars

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Q: The church I belong to operates a small food pantry/second-hand furniture program for older adults who live in the area. Occasionally our volunteers meet someone who has needs beyond what we are able to provide. It doesn’t happen often but occasionally we find out an elder is in jeopardy of having a utility shut off because they have fallen behind in their payments due to health or unexpected expenses. Can you give us some information to try and help these people?

A: Sadly, some people fall on hard times due to no fault of their own. Older adults find themselves at higher risk because of limited fixed incomes, failing health and lack of support. Our agency has always felt a strong responsibility to educate and inform people of resources available to assist them when they are in dire situations.

Households in Massachusetts in which all adult members are age 65 or older — whether there is a financial hardship or not — are protected against utility shut-offs. This includes gas or electric service to your home, or your landline telephone. Cell phones and heating oil are not covered by utility law.

Every year from November 15 to March 15, gas and electric companies cannot shut off your service because you are unable to pay. This moratorium does not apply if service was shut off for non-payment before November 15. When all adult members of the household are age 65 or older, the utility company cannot terminate service without first applying for written authorization from the Department of Public Utilities (DPU), giving written notice to the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, and to everyone in the household. It is essential everyone 65 or older in the household has given their utility companies written information about their age. The law also protects grandparent-headed households: as long as the only people under age-65 living in the household are minors (under age-18).

The DPU is unlikely to approve a shut-off, especially if the customer is trying to make a good faith repayment effort. If a person owns their home, a utility might try to put a “lien” or “attachment” on the home inorder to collect what is owed when the home is sold. Interest on the bills will be charged.

If all the members of the household are not 65 or older, there is another option: to submit that someone in the household has been diagnosed as having a “serious” or “chronic” condition. The illness or condition has to be verified by a medical doctor, nurse practitioner, or physician’s assistant. The words “serious” and “chronic” are not defined in state law, so utility companies will usually go along with a doctor’s diagnosis. Attention Deficit Disorder, PTSD, asthma, anxiety or depression are examples of a serious illness or condition. The serious or chronic illness does not have to require uninterrupted utility service. If a shut-off threat is on very short notice, the utility company has to accept a phone call from a doctor — but a follow up written letter will be required within seven days of the call. The utility has to keep service on for three months once notified that a customer is “seriously ill.” If the illness is “chronic,” there will be a six-month protection. The doctor’s office can fax the letter directly to the utility company, and should give their patient a receipt in the event proof is needed months later.

For phone land lines, the same “over 65” protections apply, as well as the “serious” illness protections. For phone service, only a doctor or clinician in a doctor’s office can certify illnesses. The same phone call from a doctor rule applies if a shut-off is imminent, with a follow up written illness letter within seven days. A doctor’s letter can be renewed two times, totaling 90-days protection.

The phone company won’t shut-off service if the customer asks for “personal emergency protection,” demonstrates that he or she cannot pay the bill, and that phone service is necessary to protect the health or safety of a member of the household. An elder with an emergency alert button around his or her neck, for example, could ask for personal emergency protection. If the phone company denies the protection, the customer can appeal to the Department of Telecommunications and Energy (DTE). Consumers should ask their gas, electric or phone company to send them an elderly household protection form, or a serious illness/chronic condition, or personal emergency protection form.