Texas changes rules for electricity disconnections for ill customers

Every so often I hear a heartbreaking complaint about how someone’s electricity is disconnected even though they depend on it to operate lifesaving medical equipment.

Sometimes people didn’t know that they have to register their medical condition to get special protection to prevent a quick power cutoff.

Other times, the company that sells the electricity, or Oncor, which distributes the power, made a mistake.

Fewer than 3,000 of Oncor’s more than 3 million area customers are registered for medical protection from cutoffs. I’m sure more would register if they were aware of the rules. That’s especially important since Jan. 1, 2011 when new rules took effect.

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, as part of those rules issued by the Public Utility Commission, a new class of customers has been created called “chronic care” customers. They are defined as having a “serious medical condition that requires electric heating or cooling to prevent the impairment of a major life function through a significant deterioration or exacerbation of the person’s medical condition.”

What does this mean? If you need heat in the winter or cool air in the summer because of your weakened medical condition, for whatever reason, you can sign up, with doctor approval, for special protection.

This replaces what was called “disabled” protection for those who could, according to the old definition, “become seriously ill or more seriously ill” with a loss of power.

Under the new rules, people with a chronic condition can — with doctor’s support — receive the designation for 90 days or a year before a renewal notice comes.

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As a safety measure, the customer and a secondary contact must be notified by letter and e-mail before the power is cut off. A disconnection notice is sent out 21 days in advance instead of the standard 10 days.

The second protected class consists of those in the critical-care program. That’s now defined as a customer who is “dependent on electricity to sustain life.” Example: Someone who needs a respirator to breathe. (A person who needs refrigeration for medical supplies would be a chronic-care customer.) The prohibition against disconnection for critical-care customers is 63 days.

Electricity companies are no longer responsible for collecting information about a customer’s medical condition. Customers who want to enroll in these programs must get the forms from their retail electricity providers. But the forms are now to be sent to Oncor, which will collect all information.

That takes electricity companies out of it. Previously, some electricity companies tried to decide which customers had valid medical reasons. That’s gone.

From now on, a simple doctor’s approval gets you through the door. If there is a question about an applicant, the customer gets immediate protection while the application is examined.

Texas is one of a few states that doesn’t offer a general medical exemption for those who can’t pay their bills because of a health issue, says Carol Biedrzycki, leader of Texas ROSE, a group that supports affordable electricity.

Electricity companies I checked with expressed no complaints about the new rules.

PUC spokesman Terry Hadley said the changes will provide consistency across the state.

These programs don’t exempt customers from paying their bills. They provide only a delay. And these new rules apply to disconnection only.

Current customers with medical protection don’t need to complete new forms until they receive renewal notices; they are grandfathered in.

Oncor suggests that critical-care customers have a backup generator in case something goes wrong. “While Oncor will do everything we can to prioritize [for these customers], no amount of preparation can safeguard against any type of power outage,” spokeswoman Catherine Cuellar says.

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is available in hardcover, as a CD audio book, ebook and hey, what else do you need. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

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