With winter a week away, Operation Fuel released an annual report Thursday which found that the gap between what low-income households in Connecticut could afford to pay in energy bills and what they actually owed has increased since last year.

According to Roger D. Colton, a regional economist who helped prepare the report, the state’s home energy affordability gap has risen to $505 million. That’s up from the $480 million he reported for 2010.

At a Capitol news conference Colton said a household’s energy burden is determined to be unaffordable if energy bills exceed 6 percent of the family’s annual income. The $505 million gap translates to about $2,200 per household for low-income families and seniors, he said.

Colton said the increased gap is especially troubling as Congress is considering cuts proposed by President Barack Obama to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), for next year. LIHEAP is already grossly insufficient to meet the needs of families in the state, he said.

“In 2011, LIHEAP provided about $97 million in energy assistance to low-income Connecticut households. Remember, however that the affordability gap is $505 million. So no matter how well you budget, no matter how much you spread, you can’t spread $97 million and have it meet a $505 million need,” he said.

Patricia Wrice, executive director of Operation Fuel, said the nonprofit has received $ 1 million from the state, $1 million from Northeast Utilities, and has raised almost an additional million to provide energy assistance to low-income households. That is almost triple the amount of money the program gave out last year and will likely help an additional 2,000 families, she said. But last year there was substantially more federal dollars helping the same population, she said.

“If there is a no additional federal funding, our funds will not be enough to make up the potential loss of up to $40 million,” she said. “Thousands of Connecticut’s low-income families and seniors will once again have to juggle paying for other basic needs such as food, health care and housing.”

Colton said the report found that 17 percent of low-income households had their heat disconnected, 8 percent had their electricity disconnected. In order to pay their home energy bills 38 percent of low-income households went without medical or dental care, 30 percent didn’t get prescriptions filled or did not get a full dose of medication, and 22 percent went without food for at least one day, he said.

“The bottom line is that because of the home energy affordability gap that we are looking at here in Connecticut, people get sick, because people can’t afford to pay their home energy bills, people go hungry they can’t afford to pay their home energy bills in Connecticut, and Connecticut residents will die,” he said.

Colton offered some suggestions to help alleviate the problem. The state should move forward with a low-income energy affordability rate, he said. Right now Connecticut is the only state in New England without such a program, he said.

The state could also do more work to promote the federal earned income tax credit, he said. The state enacted its own earned income tax credit this year, which Colton described as a tremendous step forward. But he said Connecticut residents left between 50 million and 80 million in credits unclaimed last year.

He also said now is not the right time for Congress to reduce LIHEAP funding.

“When the federal LIHEAP program misses 80 percent of the need at current funding levels, now is not the time to reduce those funding levels even more,” he said.

House Speaker Chris Donovan said if Congress does vote to reduce the program’s funding, the state would have to find a way to address the issue itself.

“We need to get those funds. That’s why we have to fight for them first, but if that’s not going to happen we have to find the resources to carry it. It’s going to be a strain on our state,” he said.

Wrice said she hopes the state steps in if it becomes necessary. She said last year Operation Fuel ran out of money to help families in February and had to close its doors, and that was when LIHEAP was fully funded.

“We’re hoping the state will do that because I don’t know where folks will go to be honest. It’s getting worse every year,” she said. 

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