I-Team: Eversource customers mistakenly enrolled in hardship program; say they’re unable to switch electric suppliers
(WFSB) - The Channel 3 I-Team has found tens of thousands of high-income earners may have been mistakenly enrolled in Eversource’s hardship program, preventing them from switching to a third-party electric supplier to save money.
When Eversource and UI announced electric rates were going up last month, George Lavallee knew what he had to do.
Lavallee tried to switch to third party supplier North American Power. Their rates were cheaper.
“I gave them all of my information and we hung up and a few days later, I got a rejection letter in the mail,” says Lavallee.
Lavallee was told to call Eversource.
Eversource told him he wasn’t eligible to switch, because he was in their hardship program.
The hardship program can help with late bills and prevents Eversource from shutting off your electricity in the winter months, if you can’t pay.
But Lavallee said he didn’t want or need it.
”I didn’t ask for it, I didn’t fill out a form to get on it,” says Lavallee.
The same thing happened to Barbara Templeton.
Both Templeton and Lavalee said they wouldn’t even qualify because their income is too high.
“Frustrating and very upsetting to me,” says Templeton. “I said without our permission. You didn’t evaluate us, nothing,” says Templeton.
HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?
In order to enter a hardship program, customers historically have to reach out to Eversource themselves.
Jess Cain with Eversource Energy says the process could often become an extra burden, so the company has been working on ways to instead, automatically identify and enroll customers with a financial hardship.
In October, they automatically enrolled thousands, using marketing data.
”The marketing data we use comes from sources that go from the census data, property and tax records, public and state records, hundreds of sources of data,” says Cain.
But the data wasn’t perfect and over-enrolled thousands with incomes that wouldn’t have ever qualified. Cain says there were no negatives until the new supply rates were announced, and people wanted to switch.
”I think this is an unprecedented time with some brand-new rates and it’s not what we intended. This was a do no harm, protect and get our customers the best programs and protections for them and it did not have any intention of surprising customers with any sort of negative information,” says Cain, VP of customer operations and assistance programs.
WHY ARE HARDSHIP CUSTOMERS PREVENTED FROM SWITCHING?
Now state regulation currently prevents hardship customers from switching to third party suppliers.
That’s because several years ago, PURA found low-income families actually paid millions more using those companies than if they had stayed with Eversource or UI.
That is, until these new winter rates.
’We’re in a different place,” says Cain.
Templeton and Lavallee say they understand what Eversource was trying to do but wish they had a choice to be enrolled or had been notified immediately when it happened.
”That’s fine. But contact the people. Ask them if they want it. It’s my choice, not theirs,” says Lavallee.
Cain said they were in the process of doing so.
HOW YOU CAN OPT OUT OF HARDSHIP:
A form is on the Eversource website: https://www.eversource.com/content/ct-c/residential/account-billing/payment-assistance (scroll down to “Hardship Protection Opt-Out”) and the phone number is 800-286-2828.
If you were mistakenly enrolled in the hardship program you can fill out a form to opt out. You can call Eversource or PURA to get one, and in a few days, you will be okay to switch.
You can also opt out if you had previously signed up for the hardship program before, but now wish to switch.
Eversource recommends you call them to go over the pros and cons before doing so.
You can call Eversource at 860-286-2828 and PURA at 800-382-4586.
The deadline to switch is getting close, but if you are interested in finding a third-party supplier, you can visit: https://energizect.com/
ATTORNEY GENERAL RESPONDS
Attorney General William Tong reacted to our report, saying:
Quote: “We pay far too much for our energy in Connecticut, and consumers should be given every opportunity to both protect themselves from shutoff and save money. If anyone has been entered incorrectly into the hardship program without their knowledge and has trouble exiting the program after requesting assistance, I want to know. These policies were made to protect hardship customers from predatory practices and overpriced contracts. What we are seeing right now with our energy rates is unprecedented, and we need to take a hard look at our policies to ensure there are no unintended consequences in this moment.” – Attorney General William Tong
Attorney General Tong intends to convene stakeholders in the coming weeks to review these policies and assess whether adjustments should be made.
Third-party suppliers have historically been a bad deal for Connecticut consumers, and hardship customers especially. For years, bad actor third-party suppliers targeted low-income communities with ballooning variable rates and long-term contracts with punishing termination fees. During one two year period, hardship customers overpaid third-party suppliers a total of $7.2 million, or an average net loss of $143 per hardship household. When hardship households were unable to afford those bad deals, those costs were ultimately spread out and paid by every other ratepayer. That led the legislature to urge PURA to consider restricting hardship customers to standard service rates only, and to legislative reforms banning predatory variable rates and termination fees. These were important reforms that addressed costly and serious problems. The global energy crisis has flipped this equation upside down. There are now third-party suppliers offering substantially lower fixed rates than the standard service, with no risk of termination fees.
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