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Energy Assistance recipients to be automatically enrolled in CenterPoint program providing affordable bills

Published July 18, 2023

Source: Minnesota Public Utilities Commission

Last week, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (the Commission) approved a proposal to automatically enroll CenterPoint Energy customers who receive Energy Assistance into a program that caps customer bills at an affordable payment each month. These changes will go into effect on January 1, 2024. 

Gas Affordability Programs (GAPs) offer income-eligible customers an opportunity to manage natural gas costs and keep their homes comfortable. GAPs limit an eligible customer’s bill to a percentage of their household income and even forgive a portion of past-due balances. (Read more on gas and electric affordability programs here.)

To be eligible for CenterPoint’s GAP, customers must receive Energy Assistance (also known as LIHEAP), have gas costs that exceed two percent of their household income, and agree to a monthly payment arrangement. Once enrolled, customers’ monthly gas payments are capped at two percent of household income. If a customer has a past-due balance, they must pay an additional one percent of their monthly income towards those arrears. The remaining portion of their balance will be forgiven over a period of 12 months.

Under CenterPoint’s new automatic enrollment process, customers who apply for and receive Energy Assistance will be provided with information about GAP, including the requirements of the program and what their monthly payments will be. Eligible customers will have 30 days to decide whether to opt out of the program before being automatically enrolled. If customers do choose to opt out of the program, they will still be able to apply for GAP normally throughout the remainder of the program year. 

One of the primary concerns raised by CUB in the Commission’s hearing was related to CenterPoint’s “recertification” process. GAP requires that customers receive Energy Assistance each year, so the utility conducts an annual review to determine continued eligibility. Previously, if a household did not receive a new Energy Assistance grant by December 31 of each year, they were removed from GAP. Because the Energy Assistance program year begins on October 1, the December 31 recertification date left only a few months for customers to apply to the program and be approved. Because Energy Assistance applications have long processing times—oftentimes spanning multiple months—it was unrealistic for all applications to be processed prior to the recertification date. Consequently, this December 31 recertification deadline resulted in customers being removed from GAP and losing its benefits and protections during the middle of winter when household gas bills are highest. Since 2018, an average of 42 percent of CenterPoint’s GAP customers were taken off the program between December and January each year.

In order to provide additional time for Energy Assistance applications to be processed, and to protect these customers from losing affordability protections during the coldest months of the year, CUB recommended an alternative recertification date be established. The Commission agreed that CenterPoint’s current recertification process was unfair to customers, and ordered that a proposal be filed within 120 days of its order to adjust the recertification date. CUB will participate in discussions regarding a new recertification date. This new process will be implemented by 2024 to protect GAP customers from inefficient and harmful disenrollment practices.

If you are struggling to keep up with your bills and want to know more about GAP, affordability programs, and other options available to you, please reach out to us at 651-300-3701 or info@cubminnesota.org.

Author: Brandon Crawford

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