Life-saving facts: When power is shut off and health is in danger

Oregon emergency medical, electric bill Oregon
By Mary Hinds, Information and Referral Specialist

Last month, 211info received nearly 1,000 phone calls from people seeking help in order to pay utility bills. Thousands more are responsible for low-income residents who battle health issues. Many people rely on electricity to keep medical equipment functioning and assume that their electricity can’t be shut off or their Emergency Medical Certificate (EMC) is always a safety net. Unfortunately, this isn’t true.

I’ll give you the facts about dealing with the difficult reality of an unpaid electricity bill that could result in medical disaster.

Recently, I spoke with a man in his late 50’s who called to say that when he returned from his medical treatment, his power was shut off. He had necessary medical equipment that uses electricity, and was alarmed that he would be without it.

He thought his Emergency Medical Certificate (EMC) would  keep the utility from shutting off his power.

Since his power was off and he was in danger and medically fragile, I asked if he called a (Community Action Program | link to: http://caowash.org/) for help. Yes, he said, he called right away and left a message on the voicemail, but was concerned they couldn’t call back on the same day.

He didn’t know what else he could do, with no family or friends in position to help him. I didn’t want to leave him with the voicemail option so I called Community Action’s main office and asked for the energy program supervisor. At a busy agency, finding the right person often takes time and know-how. I was talking to the administrative assistant when our one of our long-time partners at Community Action, walked in and took my information.

I conferenced the man into the call so he could give his account number and name. During the call my heart raced, I got more determined to find help, and I was fearful that I would have to tell this caller there was nothing to be done but wait for someone to return his voicemail. The facts are:

•the man was really sick and in danger without power
•sometimes emergency assistance funds run out for months
•sometimes a person can only get help one time a year
•this disabled man was not cognitively able to pursue the next contact after getting a voicemail or go navigate options.
Our partner at Community Action went to work to get an answer. She went into the department of Energy Assistance and was able to get the quick response needed.  She later sent me an email that electrical service was restored to the ailing man.

A medical emergency was averted. I felt a sudden relief that I was able to work through the system, and advocated for a resolution. Although it was a draining experience, it was a pleasure to help this man in a way few can.

Facts Everyone Should Know

Many people are aware of the EMC which allows for extra flexibility in payments over time to avoid utility shut offs. Like the caller, some of the certificate holders believe the EMC prevents shut offs, but they are mistaken.

•Any utility can be shut off if the bill isn’t paid, regardless of the ratepayer’s medical needs.
•The certificates are not good forever.
EMC’s always expire in 6 or 12 months. Doctors or Clinicians must resubmit the need for the EMC to the utility in 6 months if the need is temporary or within a year if the need is chronic. The request can be done orally first but must be confirmed in writing.  Medical Professionals can get the EMC forms from the utility companies when they call to confirm the need and fax them in later.

Utility companies send an expiration notice 15 days before the end date. If the certificate holder is unable to understand a notice or a number of caretakers overlook the notice, the result is that the EMC expires. Caretakers and relatives can be prepared by marking the date on a calendar ahead of the end date.

If you have questions about this program, call  your utility company. Information can be found Oregon Public Utility Commission, Consumer Section at 1-800-522-2404, or on the web at (link to: http://www.oregon.gov/PUC/consumer/emcinfo.shtml)

Do you know of anyone that could benefit from this knowledge?

Mary has been a 211info Call Center Specialist for five years. Previously, she spent sixteen years in customer support management at large computer manufacturers (Digital Equipment and INTEL). She also spent two years volunteer co-coordinator at Salvation Army West Women’s and Children’s Shelter, helped set up Rape Relief Hotline, did volunteer training and scheduled the 24X7 crisis hotline.