Representatives of a statewide non-profit program that helps households having difficulty paying their energy bills called on state lawmakers Monday to adopt a low-income residential utility rate.

At a press conference Monday at the Legislative Office Building, representatives of Operation Fuel, a statewide nonprofit program that provides heating assistance to low-income households, urged lawmakers to authorize state public utility regulators to adopt a low-income discount program.

Roger D. Colton, a regional economist, said that Connecticut was the only state in the Northeast, which has no such program. Colton said that the programs used by the surrounding states vary.

“There are a number of different ways that utilities could respond to the home energy affordability gap,” he said, adding that such programs help the utility company as well by avoiding the costs of creditors and collection costs.

“Adopting a program such as a low-income discount will have not only positive social consequences but will have positive business consequences for the utilities as well,” he said.

Colton released a report evaluating the difference between energy costs households could afford and what they actually owed in energy bills, which found that the state’s gap dropped from $585 million in 2009 to $480 million in 2010.

Nevertheless, he said there was bad news in the report as well. The affordability gap per household remained at over $2,000, Colton said. Also, while the coverage ratio of the federal energy assistance program, known as Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), went up last year, it continues to cover only a small portion of the affected households in the state, he said.

“One piece of bad news is even though I stated that the LIHEAP coverage ratio increased in 2010, the LIHEAP coverage ratio, so the extent of the gap that is covered by federal resources through the federal fuel assistance program remained at only 20 percent,” he said. “So even though the coverage ratio went up, the federal fuel assistance resources still only cover a fraction of the affordability gap for a fraction of the low-income households in Connecticut.”

Colton said the report found that many households with an affordability gap actually managed to pay their energy bill but the payments came at the cost of other necessities like food and medicine.

“What we find in the affordability gap is that people often make their home energy bill payments but they engage in coping mechanisms which are unreasonable,” he said.

The report found that 12 percent of low-income households had their gas or electricity service shut off. Thirty-five percent received disconnect notice; 41 percent went without medical or dental care; 33 percent went without food for a day to pay the bills, Colton said.

“The mere fact that home energy bills get paid doesn’t mean that home energy bills are affordable. The paid but unaffordable bill is a real phenomenon in Connecticut,” he said. “And remember while I’m up here talking about numbers, thirty percent this or forty percent that, twelve percent something else, these are real people that make these choices. There are real people in Connecticut that are going without food in order to pay their home energy bills.”

Rev. Hopeton Scott of the First Baptist Church in Bridgeport, who directs a local fuel bank told of an elderly woman he encountered there.

“She was in tears. She was trembling. She was in need of warmth. She needed an oil delivery but she wasn’t able to pay for it,” he recalled. “She had made some choices, difficult and painful choices. This is a person who had worked all her life. She had a pension, she was receiving social security benefits but she just did not have enough money to pay for all her basic needs for her light her gas and for oil and she made a choice but now she was going to have to stay in a house that had no heat.”

Scott said that because of Operation Fuel he was able to help the woman but added that a low-income rate would help many more people and would also benefit utilities.