Behind on Your Utility Bill? Have a Turn-Off Notice? Here’s What To Do

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Maryland utilities have sent out hundreds of thousands of utility bill Turn-Off notices. There is help.

If your utility bill’s past due balance is adding up during the pandemic, you’re not alone. Here’s some good news: Maryland and the regulated utilities — like BGE, Pepco, and Delmarva — took decisive steps to help residential customers. Managing the process can be tricky, so we’ve gathered the inside scoop to keep your power on and ease your family’s energy burdens.

Maryland’s state energy assistance coffer got a serious injection of cash to help pay down residential utility bills. Today, there’s about $150 million available to help income-qualified households tackle growing utility bills.  

Maryland’s energy assistance program, known as the Office of Home Energy Programs (OHEP), is designed to help low-income households’ utility bills be more affordable. A turn-off notice isn’t necessary to apply for OHEP energy assistance; it’s an income-based benefit. That’s key as utilities have been mailing hundreds of thousands of turn-off notices since October 2020 based on a record number of accounts behind on payment. Because of the pandemic’s financial fallout, utilities did extend the pay-off time to avoid termination from 14 to 45 days to pay off a past-due bill. And, utilities are now offering their customers 12- or 24-month payment plans

Here’s what to do:

Step 1: Check out this new 45-second video, below, by Maryland’s Office of People’s Counsel to help you answer the first question: Does your household qualify for state energy assistance?

The Abell Foundation provided the funds for Wide Angle Youth Media to produce the videos for the Maryland Office of People’s Counsel.

If the answer to step one is no and your household earned too much pre-tax income in the past 30 days to qualify for energy assistance, then call your utility immediately and enroll in a 12-month payment plan. Taking this simple step helps avoid termination. Then check out The Fuel Fund to see if it might be able to help.

Step 2: If your household does qualify for energy assistance, watch this four-minute video that spells out the steps to complete an energy assistance application. 

“Given the challenge to complete an energy assistance application, and have it processed within 45 days to pay all, or a portion, of the balance, doing it right the first time is your best bet to keep your power on,” said Brandi Nieland, Director of Consumer Assistance at the Office of People’s Counsel. “There’s a must-have list of verification documents that applicants include with the application. If you are missing any documents, your application’s processing time is slowed down.” 

COVID-19 Makes Things Trickier

Maryland’s local energy assistance offices typically help residents in-person with the application. But while the employees in the offices are processing applications, they’re not seeing residents in person due to COVID-19. The end result is that it’s a do-it-yourself process to complete the energy assistance application online or complete and mail in a paper application

Like other state helplines (hint-unemployment), the state’s energy assistance helpline (800-332-6347) can get busy. But the phone system does allow applicants to request to have a paper application mailed, obtain a list of local offices, and other information.

Sort of like prepping for the Real ID process, applicants will need to gather the needed verification documents to go along with the application.

Insider Tips

A lot of energy assistance applications have been sent in with “incomplete documents.” Applicants must later send the missing documents into a very busy state energy assistance office. The four-minute video, above, may save you a future headache. 

Once you submit the energy assistance application, wait about three to four weeks to check the application’s status online at MYOHEPSTATUS.ORG. Also, look out for the determination letter from the Department of Human Services alerting you to the amount of grants, or if additional documents are needed. 

If you are still short on funds to pay off your utility bill, check out the Fuel Fund or Salvation Army for additional grants. Call 211, or visit the 2-1-1 web site to learn about the often lengthy list of support and programs.

Laurel Peltier
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