Help is available if you can't pay your electric bill

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by DEBBIE DENMON

WFAA

Posted on August 3, 2011 at 7:14 PM

Updated Wednesday, Aug 3 at 7:29 PM

DALLAS — It's not just the Texas power grid being pushed to the limit.  Power bills are soaring as we suffer through the highest temperatures of the year. 

When the mercury hit 110 on Tuesday, wholesale power prices skyrocketed to $3,000 per megawatt hour. 

Mary Wooderd, who lives on a fixed income in Dallas, is sweating from fear.

"I don't have $375," said Wooderd, who is 69.

Normally her TXU Energy bill runs her $120 a month, but that price shot up. Now she owes $375 for last month plus the current charges due August 11.

Wooderd depends on medical equipment to help her breathe. Without power, she's unsure what she would do.

"I cannot afford for it to turned off, because of this machine and my oxygen machine," she said.

The senior citizen called the Dallas County Health and Human Services Department extreme heat hotline Wednesday asking for help to pay her bill. 

"There's a lot of people right now that are needing assistance," said Priscilla Rodriguez, who answers Dallas County's hotline.  "Alone, I speak to over 100 people a day."   

The customer service representatives take information on the phone and case workers meet with 20 people a day to see if they qualify for assistance.  The health department gets $6 million a year in state aid to dole out for utility assistance.

TXU put Wooderd on a special protection plan where she has an average monthly rate, which is offered to those with certain medical conditions. 

TXU also accepts payment from Dallas County to take care of customer bills, but a other energy providers will not., only accepting payment in the resident's name and offering no energy aid. 

Zachary Thompson, the director of Dallas County Health and Human Services, called  said. 

"That's disheartening," said health department director Zachary Thompson. "That's a hard reality for a client who comes to us and says, 'I just got cut off. They didn't give me a grace period,' and that's the reality of  clients we're seeing."

Thompson advises consumers to ask energy providers about the process if they get behind on bills. 

"The difficulty is, a lot of people are switching providers and going to a smaller provider thinking they are getting a better rate,"  he said. "What they don't understand in that process is that a smaller provider is going to cut you off immediately the first time you miss a payment." 

TXU Energy spokeswoman Amanda Ray is warning consumers about variable rate plans that its spokesperson describes as a cheap fix in the beginning, but expensive in the long run.  The provider can hike the energy bill 80 to 100 percent.   

"And these type hikes are unforeseen by the customers who think they'll get a good deal," Ray said.  "We did a survey of 750 Texans and found across the board consumers don't realize variable rate electricity plans can go up as much as the provider wants and as often as they want with no advance warning to the customer." 

This is all legal,  but it's the stark cold reality during this extreme heat that consumers could end up paying the price in more ways than one while trying to save money and stay cool. 

You can call the state's 211 information hotline about agencies in Texas that will provide utility assistance. 

The Texas Public Utility Commission offers the LITE-UP Texas Program to help qualified low-income residents reduce the cost of electric bills in the summer months.

Those with severe medical conditions must register with the Public Utility Commission to ensure that machines vital for living won't be cut off due to nonpayment of electric bills. 

Dallas County Health and Human Services will pay 100 percent of utility bills if clients meet certain criteria, providing their energy provider will accept their payment. Call 214-819-1848 to schedule an appointment to apply for the Comprehensive Energy Assistance Program.

E-mail ddenmon@wfaa.com

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