Sen. Richard Blumenthal with Consumer Counsel Claire Coleman and Gannon Long of Operation Fuel.

The winter heating season has already started, Operation Fuel has stopped taking applications, and Congress level-funded the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal held a press conference outside the state Capitol Monday and called on his colleagues in Washington to do more to help.

“Applications for heating assistance are up by about 20%,” Blumenthal said. However, the funding is still only about $4 billion nationwide. 

“I am urging an additional increase in funding for LIHEAP,” Blumenthal said. “This assistance is needed now and we should not be waiting for Connecticut families to be in crisis before we do the right thing.”

However, as things stand now in Congress – where there is currently no Speaker of the House – it’s anybody’s guess as to when Congress might get an opportunity to vote on additional LIHEAP funding.

The additional heating assistance the state received during the pandemic has expired, which means there’s about 31% less money this year for families in need. 

Connecticut’s federal LIHEAP block grant is around $75 million — roughly on par with last year’s base grant. Limited additional funding will push the total support up to around $84.8 million. 

Those pre-pandemic funding levels mean reductions in benefits for the state’s poorest families. Last year, the most vulnerable residents received a basic benefit of $600 and up to three crisis assistance benefits of $430. This year, the basic benefit will be reduced to $530 and families will be eligible for just two crisis benefits of $410. 

Operation Fuel’s Gannon Long said the affordability gap between what people can pay for their energy needs and what they’re being asked to pay has increased 37% in just two years since Operation Fuel last studied this issue. 

She said there’s an increase in demand. Last year their program season was four months and it’s been condensed down to two. 

“We’re seeing that as being the new normal because we know over 400,000 families in Connecticut struggle with their energy costs every day,” Long said.

She said the program stopped accepting applications last week and plans to reopen Jan. 2. 

Last year, the nonprofit approved around 3,900 applications during its Summer/Fall application period. Two years ago, the program received only around 2,000 applications during that same period.