While Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funds weren’t disbursed in 2011 according to state guidelines, they were sent to eligible households by a process the federal government says is commonly used by other states, said Department of Health and Human Services CEO Kerry Winterer today (4/1) at a news conference called by State Auditor Mike Foley regarding an audit of the program.
He said DHHS was notified in October 2010, that it would receive more than $20 million to help households with limited income offset the cost of heating and cooling their homes. On Jan. 11, 2011, the federal government said the department would receive another $18 million, and later that month $1.7 million more. An additional $423,000 was received in April 2011. The three latter amounts were designated contingency or supplemental funds, which are additional basic heating or cooling payments, to reimburse eligible households for payments they had already made for previous energy bills.
Winterer said DHHS delayed the distribution of supplemental funds until late August 2011. “By that time, the season had passed and the Oct. 1, 2011, deadline was facing us. So, our first error was that we delayed making the decision about how funds would be disbursed.”
If the dollars hadn’t been sent to eligible households, Winterer said the funds would have been returned to the federal government and deserving Nebraskans would have received no payments.
Of the total supplemental dollars distributed, $7.7 million went to recipients of crisis assistance funds who were eligible for the payments, he said. But, department regulations say payments to crisis assistance recipients must be sent to their utility.
“Our second error was the decision to send the payments directly to households that had received crisis assistance funds, contrary to our regulations,” he said. “This decision was based on the need to distribute the funds by Oct. 1. In that limited timeframe, the only way we could ensure payments would be made to benefit the household was to send the payment directly to them.”
It is important to note, he said, that the State Auditor is not alleging payments were made to ineligible households, or that there will be a disallowance of federal dollars. “In fact, in our contacts with the federal government, they have said our actions are commonly used by other states to distribute their LIHEAP funds before they expire, as long as payments are provided to eligible households.”
Winterer said DHHS has already taken action to fix the problems. New leadership in the department understands the importance of making timely decisions. In addition, LIHEAP is now part of a data system that will provide the most current information DHHS has available about households. DHHS also makes LIHEAP, and other assistance payments, to a debit card and no longer uses checks, which will avoid problems mentioned in the State Auditor’s audit. State regulations will be amended to clarify procedures for disbursing supplemental payments.