An Assembly panel approved on Monday a three-bill legislative package sponsored by Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling requiring certain verifications for LIHEAP applicants, annually updating LIHEAP handbooks and providing quarterly trainings for employees.
The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program is a federally funded program that allows the State to provide assistance to help low-income residents cover home energy costs.
On October 12, 2016, the Office of the State Comptroller released an investigative report on LIHEAP titled “Administration of New Jersey’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.” According to the report, LIHEAP benefits were awarded to persons who did not meet the income requirements of the program due, in part, to insufficient checks by the agencies that administer LIHEAP.
The legislative package establishes the comptroller’s recommendations to better ensure that LIHEAP benefits are not awarded to ineligible applicants, curbs fraud and ensures that the most deserving applicants receive the awards under the program.
“Seniors, disabled residents and tenants rely on the financial assistance to help with their heating and cooling costs,” said Assemblyman Houghtaling. “These are good recommendations by the Comptroller that, with implementation, will help to improve services.”
The first bill (A-2543) would require the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) to verify the income of applicants for Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) benefits before awarding benefits under that program. The bill requires DCA to cross-check applicants with income data supplied by both the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the Division of taxation in the Department of Treasury before awarding LIHEAP benefits. The cross-check required by this bill may be made on a random or risk basis, except that every applicant claiming to have no income would be subjected to an income verification review.
Another bill (A-2544) would require the department to prepare and annually update containing the governing policies and eligibility requirements for the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and to provide training sessions about the program on a quarterly basis. Under the bill, all employees of LIHEAP agencies who have LIHEAP responsibilities would be required to read and adhere to the updated handbooks, and the supervisors of these agencies who oversee LIHEAP work would be required to attend the quarterly training sessions. In addition, the bill directs the Department of Community Affairs to establish a schedule of days and hours of operation, a toll free number, and downloadable application on its Internet website to facilitate the receipt of benefits under the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
An agency that fails to substantially comply with these requirements may be disqualified by DCA form serving as a LIHEAP agency.
A third bill in the legislative package (A-2540) would requires the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) to verify that an applicant is not deceased prior to awarding the applicant Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) benefits, and on a periodic basis after awarding these benefits. The bill requires DCA to cross-check applicants with vital statistics data held by the State Registrar of Vital Statistics in the Department of Health before and after awarding LIHEAP benefits.
According to preliminary HHS data for Federal Fiscal Year 2015, LIHEAP supported $1.7 billion in heating assistance, $202 million in cooling assistance, $680 million for crisis assistance, and $336 million for low-cost residential weatherization or other energy-related home repairs to an estimated 6 million households across the United States.
The bills were released by the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee. They will now go to the Assembly Speaker for further consideration.