Software to Assist Local Governments with Energy Assistance Programs

By Julia Caro, Utility Billing Support Team Lead

Energy Assistance ProgramPayment Methods, programs funded by state and federal agencies to help pay energy bills for people who qualify as “low income,” are generally seen as a good thing.  But when trying to seamlessly integrate these programs into your billing infrastructure, a good thing can quickly go bad!  An emerging issue with local governments using these Energy Assistance Programs is implementing the proper payment procedures within their billing software.  Black Mountains Software has a solution for that, which makes this good thing even better!

What are the common guidelines for Energy Assistance Program billings?

When Energy Assistance Program payments are received by the utility provider, they must be processed according to the guidelines set forth by the agency. Typically the utility provider signs an agreement outlining these requirements. Although guidelines vary from agency to agency, the most common conditions include:

  • Keeping records and making them available to the agency for an agreed upon period of time
  • Applying the full amount of payments to the accounts for the qualifying service(s) only
  • Agreement not to discriminate against participants in the program
  • Agreement to report any potentially fraudulent activity.

Typically, assistance programs require the utility vendor to keep records concerning billing and payment history. Usually, the content must include meter reading and usage history, price per unit and billing charges made to qualifying services, and these records must be kept for a specified number of years. Additionally, some programs require documentation to be submitted based on a predetermined schedule; for example, monthly, yearly, and/or upon request.

How do you address overpayments of an Energy Assistance Program account?

The full payment must be applied to the account when it is received, even if the amount received is more than the amount that is owed on the account. It is especially important to make sure that the payment only affects the qualifying service(s). For example, if the utility provider charges for water, sewer and gas, the only qualifying service is gas. Subsequently, any “overpayment” amount from the program cannot be distributed to the water or sewer charges; the resulting credit can only be applied to the qualifying service of gas. If the utility provider charges for water, sewer, gas, and electric, then both electric and gas usually qualify.

What are some unique conditions to consider when working with an Energy Assistance Program account?

Most assistance programs require that the utility provider not discriminate against their customers who participate in the program. This means that when making decisions regarding an account, the provider must not use participation in an assistance program as a factor. The program member customer must be treated as any other customer would be treated. Issues with readings, emergency service calls, and all other provided services must be managed the same way for each customer, regardless of how their bill is paid.

If the utility provider suspects fraud, they are usually required to report the information to the assistance program. An example of suspected fraud that should be reported would be a situation where payment assistance has been authorized for gas heat, but the service address is heated with coal.

What solutions can Black Mountain Software help me address when working with Energy Assistance Programs?

Working with assistance programs is not much different than receipting regular payments; however, there are some special considerations regarding overpayment.

Black Mountain Software Utility Billing offers several solutions to ease management of and compliance with the requirements of assistance programs. An important BMS feature for Energy Assistance Program payments is that the credit portion of payments that results in an overpayment of the qualifying service is held separately.  Since Black Mountain Software has the functionality to hold a credit in a separate service category, when new qualifying charges occur on the account the credit is only distributed to those charges in the qualifying service.

Here’s an example: Let’s say the provider charges for water, sewer, and gas; they might set up their service list in BMS as Water, Sewer, Gas, Assistance Overpay, Miscellaneous, and Overpayment. The assistance credit cannot be allowed to go to the Overpayment category, because then it will be distributed to all of the services. Instead, the credit is placed in the Assistance Overpay category. This accomplishes two things: (1.) The customer sees the credit on his or her bill along with the new charges for the month, and (2.) The credit won’t accidentally be distributed to an outstanding charge for another non-qualifying service. Some customers elect to keep energy assistance accounts separated. For example, a service address that is utilizing a low income energy assistance program might be billed for water, sewer, and electric, but they receive two separate bills: one for the electricity charges (i.e., the item that qualifies for energy assistance) and another for the water and sewer charges.

One final tip from Black Mountain Software to Utility Billing clerks: Carefully read the energy assistance agreement to make sure you understand the exact requirements of the program. Most low income energy assistance programs have detailed websites that are very helpful – including contact information for those times when YOU require assistance with their assistance program!

If Black Mountain Software clients need help setting up their Energy Assistance Program payment procedures within BMS Utility Billing software, they can simply call our Support Team at 1-800-353-8829 for prompt, friendly assistance.

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