CLEVELAND — Some Cleveland residents report difficulty in obtaining crucial appointments for the Home Heating Assistance Program, or HEAP, through its customer service phone line.
Rose Dickens told News 5 she's been trying to secure an appointment for heating help for more than two months, and during that time Dominion Energy shut-off her gas service for four weeks, because she got behind in payments.
Dickens said she called the HEAP Cleveland office two dozen times, but nearly every time she was met with a recording that said, "we are sorry that there are currently no time slots to schedule your appointment."
She said her home temperature has dropped to 40 degrees, so she contacted News 5.
“It’s like living on the street, that’s basically what it is, but you got a house around you,” Dickens said.
“I called late in the night, called early in the morning, I was calling all different times.”
“They don’t take nobody until you’re in crisis, until winter time, so I had to wait for winter time, and then you still can’t get an appointment.”
News 5 contacted the Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland, which is one agency that deals with HEAP applications in Cuyahoga County, and Ohio's Development Services Agency which administrates the flow of federal funds to the HEAP program.
The Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland told News 5 it has worked extensively to increase access to phone line appointments, and issued the following statement:
"We are aware that there are customers who have a difficult time getting through the HEAP phone lines, especially during our HEAP Winter Crisis program - which runs from November 1 until March 31st.
In the past two years, we have opened up additional phone lines and allowed people to schedule appointments online. We also offer Saturday hours on specific Super Saturdays during our Winter Crisis Program to allow more customers to be seen during our busiest times.
Unfortunately, even with these changes, we have a significant challenge due to the overwhelming need in Cuyahoga County."
"The additional phone lines and online appointment scheduling portal allow customers to schedule their appointments up to 28 days in advance. If we were able to extend that timetable, that would also allow for easier scheduling. Unfortunately, as it stands now, the state allows only 28 days of scheduled appointments, but has been willing to entertain changes to the program as a result of the needs in Cuyahoga and other counties."
Two years ago both agencies told News 5 more federal dollars would help move along the approval of HEAP applications more quickly.
The Council for Economic Opportunities blamed some of the HEAP delays on incomplete applications submitted by residents seeking heating help.
The agency set-up a webpage detailing all information needed when completing a HEAP application, hoping it will help prevent application mistakes.
News 5 also contacted Dominion Energy Ohio about the Rose Dickens account, and it responded immediately, restoring her gas service and heat under its medical certification program.
Dominion spokesman Neil Durbin told News 5 customers can also maintain or re-establish their gas service by enrolling in the Percentage of Income Payment Plan, or PIPP Plus.
"To maintain your gas service, you need to pay either 6% of your total monthly household income or $10, which ever is greater," Durbin said.
“You will also be credited for the rest of the bill not covered by the PIPP Plus payment plan, and then you will also be credited for 1/24 of any previous account balance you might have.”
PIPP Plus applicants must be at or below 150% of the federal poverty guidelines. That means under $18,735 annual income for a single person.
Durbin said both HEAP and PIPP Plus are great programs, but said PIPP has an advantage in that it is available year round.
Dickens is just thankful Dominion has given her a chance to maintain heat in her home, and give her the help she needs to catch-up on her gas bill.
"Oh thanks a lot, thanks a lot, I mean I'm really grateful that they worked with me and a go on this."