December 6, 2013

New antifraud measure holds up Augusta heating funds

A federal requirement that those who apply for federal heating assistance show Social Security cards has meant delays for some who need help.

By Keith Edwards kedwards@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — A new requirement that applicants show their Social Security cards before they can get federal heating assistance is slowing an application review process already so backed up that it could be spring before someone who calls for help today gets an appointment.

Heat help by the numbers

The Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, which oversees the distribution of federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funds, can be reached at 859-1500 or 800-542-8227. Information about assistance also is available by calling 211 or going online to www.211maine.org.

Officials anticipate Maine will receive $37.5 million in federal LIHEAP funds this year.

KVCAP already has received about 6,800 applications for heating assistance from residents of Kennebec, Somerset, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties this heating season.

The Kennebec Valley Community Action Program already has received about 6,800 applications for heating help this season, according to program manager Kelly LaChance, who oversees the agency’s distribution of federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funds.

While about 4,000 already have been paid out, LaChance said some clients are being denied assistance because of new requirements meant to combat fraud. One of them is that applicants show their actual Social Security cards, not photocopies. It’s a new requirement and even applies to people who have received similar benefits in the past.

“The biggest holdup this year is everybody has to bring in a Social Security card,” LaChance told a gathering of the Emergency Heating Assistance Group, consisting of about a dozen people representing nonprofits, municipalities, social service agencies, an oil dealer and others. The group meets monthly in Augusta throughout the heating season to compare notes and share ideas about how to make sure low-income residents can heat their homes.

“Some people haven’t had a card in forever,” she said. “Some just don’t have them. It’s a hardship.”

LaChance said the Social Security Administration is backed up in processing requests for cards, but the administration can issue an official “snapshot” of the card, which is acceptable for receiving heating assistance.

Rob Gordon, executive director of United Way of Kennebec Valley, said the increased requirement for documents to receive LIHEAP funds could lead some people to seek money from local General Assistance programs instead, increasing the burden on those programs.

LaChance said the change is part of increased antifraud measures sought by the federal Office of the Inspector General.

She said other instances of fraud include some clients siphoning oil bought with government assistance back out of their tanks and reselling it.

Lynn Ouellette, liquid product specialist for Augusta Fuel Co. and a member of the heating assistance group, said anyone reselling oil is doing so illegally and potentially dangerously. If oil is spilled, she said, it could contaminate groundwater. Also, pumping oil out of a tank to sell for use in another tank could contaminate and damage the furnace it is used in, she said.

KVCAP, which processes LIHEAP requests for residents of Kennebec, Somerset, Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties, already has so many appointments scheduled that a new applicant who calls now to make an appointment isn’t likely to get one until April.

LaChance said the 6,800 applications they’ve received so far this season are about 300 fewer than they had at this time last year. Maine has been designated to receive about $37.5 million in LIHEAP funds this year, up from about $34.9 million last year.

She said the average benefit for KVCAP clients has been $550 to $565. At an average of $3.53 a gallon for oil in the Augusta-Wateville area, according to www.maineoil.com, such an amount would buy about 160 gallons. For kerosene, at an average price in the area of $3.95 a gallon, it would buy about 140 gallons.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647kedwards@centralmaine.com
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