WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Monday again proposed eliminating a federal program that each year helps nearly 110,000 low-income families in Connecticut pay their winter heating bills.
As part of his 2019 budget plan released Monday, Trump called for ending the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), claiming it has been known to have “sizable fraud and abuse.”
Getting rid of LIHEAP would save the federal government nearly $3.4 billion across the nation in the 2019 fiscal year — money that Trump says can be better targeted for children and families served by the Department of Health and Human Services. Connecticut received nearly $79 million through LIHEAP in 2017, where it is administered through the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program to help offset winter heating costs for households whose incomes fall at or below 60 percent of the state median income.
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services and Education subcommittee, called the proposal to eliminate LIHEAP “perhaps one of the most heartless cuts” in the 2019 budget — and one that she will vehemently oppose.
“Eliminating this lifeline for individuals and families who need a helping hand is beyond cruel, and I refuse to let it happen. We have a moral obligation to support programs like LIHEAP to ensure our citizens do not die in their homes because they cannot afford energy,” she said.
U.S. Rep. John Larson called the proposed cut a “non-starter” for him, noting that the program has historically enjoyed bipartisan support and in 2017 benefited 110,000 households in Connecticut.
“I fully oppose the elimination of it. It would be a non-starter in Congress and a non-starter for Connecticut,” he said.
Connecticut Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy had urged the White House last month to prioritize funding for LIHEAP in the 2019 budget. In a letter, signed by 45 Senators including several Republicans, they noted “the importance of affordable access to home energy as a matter of health and safety for more than six million low-income households, children, veterans, seniors, and Indian tribes.
“This program helps to ensure that eligible recipients do not have to choose between paying their energy bills and affording other necessities like food and medicine. This is especially important during the peak winter heating and summer cooling seasons, when energy bills can comprise more than 30 percent of a low-income household’s monthly income,” they wrote Trump on Jan. 31.
Even with LIHEAP, many Connecticut families face heating and electric bills that stress their budgets each winter, according to Hartford-based Operation Fuel. The non-profit issued a report in December noting that Connecticut’s “Home Energy Affordability Gap” totaled $450 million in 2017 for some 320,000 low-income families in Connecticut, or an average of $1,404 per household. LIHEAP provided $79 million in assistance, or roughly 17.5 percent of the total Affordability Gap in the state for 2017.
The Affordability Gap, according to Operation Fuel, is the amount a household pays for heating and electricity that exceeds 6 percent of the household’s annual income. The gap grew last year by 13 percent due to rising fuel costs. A low-income household included those at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level.
In justifying the elimination of LIHEAP, Trump points to a 2010 Government Accountability Office study of the LIHEAP program in seven states that the White House claims concluded the program “lacked proper oversight, which resulted in a significant number of improper payments.”
GAO offered recommendations to the Department of Health and Human Services to address fraud and abuse concerns raised in its 2010 study. In response, HHS that year issued several memorandums to states that manage the programs to confirm the identity of applicants and household members and ensure they are eligible recipients, don’t receive duplicate payments, and that payments are not made to deceased individuals.
The Trump budget concedes that states have taken steps to work toward improving the verification of identify and income. As a secondary reason for ending the program, it says that states have enacted so-called “disconnection policies” that prevent utility companies from disconnecting homes under certain circumstances including 15 states that enforce temperature restrictions related to freezing or extreme heat weather.
Trump proposed a similar cut last year but Congress did not agree to eliminate LIHEAP and instead funded it at essentially the same level as the previous fiscal year.