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Maine has received double its normal heating aid this year, but few eligible Mainers are getting it

A Downeast Energy technician refills a homeowner's propane tank in Yarmouth, Maine.
Esta Pratt-Kielley
Maine Public
A Downeast Energy technician refills a homeowner's propane tank in Yarmouth, Maine.

Maine has received more than double it's normal allocation of heating and weatherization aid this year, thanks to the American Rescue Plan Act. Yet, according to a federal health and human services website, only about one fifth of Mainers eligible for low income heating aid are getting it. Advocates say part of the problem is inadequate data sharing between state agencies that has slowed the application process.

Maine Equal Justice Senior Policy Advisor Chris Hasted says the State Department of Health and Human Services has an integrated benefits system that stores income and household data from clients that could easily be used by Maine Housing Authority to process heating aid applications and get assistance out sooner. But, she says, the Housing Authority offers no online application or data sharing with DHHS, and that's one reason why appointments are being pushed out for months.

"For 90% of the people eligible for LIHEAP, DHHS already has verified income information on them, these people are wandering into CAP offices and having to provide information again when there is a simpler way to complete that application," Hasted says.

Hasted says a digital application, allowing Mainers to apply for multiple benefits at once, could cut the process time in half. Dan Brennan, the director of Maine Housing, says his office has already processed more than 30,000 applications this heating season and is distributing more than $700,000 in fuel aid a week. But Brennan agrees that a digital application would benefit clients and says his agency is working with Health and Human Services on a new computer system to allow data sharing.

"We get over 50,000 applications a year and continuing to seek efficiencies in the use of technology has to be at the forefront of our thinking," Brennan says.

Brennan says phone applications are still needed for those who don't have internet service and staff shortages due to COVID will compound the wait time. Still, he says efforts are underway to smooth out the process to ensure eligible Mainers get the assistance they need as soon as possible.