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Business & Economy

Low-income utility users get grace period from disconnection while applying for help to pay bills

Sam Hendren
89.7 NPR News

The agency charged with looking out for Ohio’s utility customers is celebrating a decision from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio that will help people stay connected when they’re struggling to pay for utilities.

The Ohio Consumers’ Counsel and several legal aid organizations asked the PUCO to prevent natural gas and electricity providers in the state from turning off a customer’s service temporarily while they are applying for payment assistance programs.

The OCC argued that customers applying for financial assistance programs often face delays in their applications and shouldn’t suffer a disconnection while they’re waiting for approval for entry into the program.

The PUCO’s decision gives low-income consumers protection for 30 days after they apply for financial assistance.

“Going forward, electric and natural gas utilities are prohibited from disconnecting consumers for 30 days after consumers apply for financial assistance to pay their bills. The ruling will give low-income Ohioans a critical protection from utility disconnections while they await processing of their financial assistance,” said Bruce Weston with the consumers’ counsel.

The other organizations that asked for the change were Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio, the Ohio Poverty Law Center and Pro Seniors.

In filings, supporters of the measure state that only 17% of eligible Ohioans are taking advantage of the assistance program to help pay their utility bills.

Utility companies AEP, Duke and AES opposed the motion, which was filed in June and approved earlier this month.

In a filing opposing the measure, AEP argued the request was similar to requests previously rejected by the PUCO for moratoriums on disconnections, that the move would side-step the process for bill-pay assistance applications and that to be considered, the proponents should have filed the request in a different way.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.