Utility Service Termination
Charlie Harak is senior attorney for energy and utilities issues at the National Consumer Law Center.
At its recent Mid-Year Meeting in Minneapolis, NASUCA adopted Resolution 2018-03, "Urging Adoption of Protections Against Termination of Utility Service for Low-income, Senior, and Other At-Risk Households in Which a Seriously or Chronically Ill or Disabled Person Resides." NASUCA has good reason to focus on the needs of these households.
In the Memphis Light v. Craft case, the United States Supreme Court held that "utility service is a necessity of modern life; indeed, the discontinuance of water or heating for even short periods of time may threaten health and safety." That statement is far more than legal dictum.
Among other problems, loss of electricity or gas that is used to heat often leads disconnected customers to resort to unsafe and dangerous heating systems. According to the National Fire Prevention Association, approximately four-fifths of house fires resulting in death involve the improper use of space heaters.
While loss of utility service places any household at risk, we as a society should be particularly concerned about the greater risks faced by low-income and elderly households in which there is a seriously ill or disabled person.
Seniors and young children are particularly prone to both hypothermia and hyperthermia, should utility services be terminated. Many customers need utility service to keep medicine properly refrigerated; to power essential devices such as electric wheelchairs; or to operate oxygen equipment.
In a 2018 report, Living Without Power: Health Impacts of Utility Shutoffs in California, The Utility Reform Network recounts the story of a customer with kidney failure who was terminated by his utility for non-payment. He was forced to leave the house and live with his daughter in order to run the dialysis machine.
In a 2017 report, Lights Out in the Cold: Reforming Utility Shut-Off Policies as If Human Rights Matter, the NAACP includes the story of Lester Berry, a seventy-year old resident of Liberty County, Texas who had congestive heart failure and COPD and who painfully suffocated to death when his power was cut off for owing a hundred and thirty dollars. It is troubling that a handful of states have no mandatory serious illness protections, not even for "medically essential" utility service.
While most states do offer some level of protection from termination to households in which there is a serious illness, states vary widely in determining who is eligible for protection, and the extent of that protection.
For example, Massachusetts - one of the states with strong protections for a broad class of customers - prohibits termination "of gas or electric service in any residence during such time as there is a serious illness therein" if a doctor, nurse practitioner or physician's assistant "certifies in writing that such serious illness exists" and "the customer cannot afford to pay any overdue bill because of a financial hardship." The protection can be renewed so long as the illness continues.
Florida, by contrast, only protects a narrow class of customers who obtain a certificate that utility service is "medically essential," meaning the customer has equipment that must be operated continuously "to avoid the loss of life or immediate hospitalization of the customer or another permanent resident at the residential address."
Even customers with "medically essential equipment" are not protected against termination, but rather gain "an extension of time, not to exceed thirty days" to make a payment arrange acceptable to the company.
Presumably, if the customer cannot offer a payment plan acceptable to the company, the company could terminate service, which could result in quite serious consequences, including death.
In many states, terminations are increasing even as the economy has been improving overall. For example, in California, terminations increased fifty percent from 2010 to 2017, even as the unemployment rate was cut in half (from almost thirteen percent to six and a half percent) over roughly the same period.
NASUCA has wisely and humanely adopted a resolution which "encourages all policymakers to adopt laws, regulations and policies to protect customers from termination of utility service when there is a serious or chronic illness in the home, particularly when the household has low-income residents, or when there are vulnerable seniors or young children in the home." One hopes regulators and legislators take heed and act accordingly.