Maine group homes collecting heating assistance payments meant for elderly, disabled

Posted Sept. 07, 2012, at 7:48 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 08, 2012, at 7:05 a.m.

BREWER, Maine — For years, Marjorie Albee, who is mentally disabled, has been turning over the heating assistance checks she receives to the small group home where she has lived, even though her rent payments include utilities.

The Charlotte White Center, which runs the Brewer home where Albee now lives, says it needs the additional revenue to cover its expenses. But advocates and the agencies that administer the state’s Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program say this practice, which essentially means the agencies are being paid twice for providing heat and utilities, flies against the intent of the LIHEAP program.

By law, the federal money is intended for the residents, according to officials with Maine State Housing Authority and the Office of Adult Protective Services.

While there is no mechanism in the LIHEAP application to track recipients’ living situations, state officials said they believe this has been happening on a wide scale.

Charles Shaffer, a regional advocate for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Advocacy, said residents of small group homes can do whatever they want with their LIHEAP funds, including turning them over to the agencies that care for them, but the law is clear that the funds are meant for the residents.

Small group homes house as few as two residents who receive varying levels of support, often including round-the-clock staffing. Typically, a fixed percentage of the resident’s income goes toward the rent, though under the LIHEAP program they are considered the same as any renter.

“This is not a new situation, but I don’t think the legality has ever been tested,” said Shaffer. “From our end, we kind of frown upon it because [the agencies] have already included the cost to run a home in their budget proposals. According to a straight reading of the statute, this is probably not something that should be happening.”

Shaffer said a handful of residents of small group homes and their legal guardians have contacted him about this issue in recent years.

“There have been times in the past when I have complained about this on behalf of a person who has contacted me,” said Shaffer. “I have gotten refunds in every case.”

Albee, 66, who lives on Social Security disability income, has about $70 a month for spending money after her lease payments, which cover room and board, including utilities. The rest of her income flows to the Charlotte White Center, an organization that oversees a home in Brewer where Albee and another woman receive around-the-clock care and supervision. Sharon Gilley of Seal Harbor, who is Albee’s court-appointed legal guardian, said Albee is mentally handicapped and unable to make many decisions on her own. For the past dozen years, agencies that have cared for Albee have applied for heating assistance on her behalf and then put the money into their operating budgets, said Gilley.

“It’s not right what these homes are doing to these people who are in them,” Gilley told the Bangor Daily News. “I would like people to know what’s going on.”

Gilley said though she has been Albee’s guardian for many years, the first time she personally applied for heating assistance on Albee’s behalf was earlier this year. In past years, the agencies she has lived with have filled out the application forms and when Albee received checks, Gilley signed them over to the agencies. Then this year a check for $193 came to Gilley in Albee’s name and she decided to resist giving it to the Charlotte White Center. Gilley contacted several agencies including the Maine State Housing Authority and Penquis, which administer LIHEAP in Maine, and came to the conclusion that Albee is entitled to keep the money.

“Part of me kept saying I know this isn’t right,” said Gilley. “Up until this year’s check I never knew I had the choice.”

Rod Willey, an operations and social enterprise team leader for the Charlotte White Center, said he was unfamiliar with Albee’s specific situation, but said all of Charlotte White’s residents — or their legal guardians — make their own decisions about what to do with their LIHEAP funds. He said 16 individuals under the center’s care opted to turn over their LIHEAP money during the most recent round of funding for a total of $2,660, compared with three individuals who chose to keep their checks.

“They have the right to keep the money, and some of them do,” said Willey.

Earlier this year, the Charlotte White Center conferred with Maine State Housing Authority, which administers the federal LIHEAP program in Maine, about which clients were eligible and which weren’t. Willey said residents are asked to sign a non-legally binding agreement to turn over their LIHEAP proceeds, though Gilley said she never has seen such a document from the Charlotte White Center and wouldn’t sign it if she did.

Gilley said Charlotte White called her this spring and asked her to either fill out Albee’s LIHEAP forms or give the agency permission to do so. It was the first time Gilley ever has filled out the forms personally, which she said prompted her to call numerous agencies to determine who is eligible for the money — including Charlotte White officials who Gilley said at first told her she had to turn over the LIHEAP funds. Gilley learned that Albee could keep the LIHEAP money, which Gilley intends to use for a winter coat, clothing and other expenses that Albee’s $70 a month in spending money can’t cover.

Gilley said one of her major concerns centers on what went on in past years when she wasn’t involved with Albee’s LIHEAP application. She said there were several years when staff at a previous organization that oversaw Albee’s care, a Bangor-area firm called OHI, filled out the LIHEAP forms for Albee with no involvement from Gilley.

“The reason Margie has a guardian is because she can’t make choices for herself or sign for things,” said Gilley. “When the check came I had to sign the check and turn it over to them, but part of me kept saying, ‘I know this isn’t right.’ I’ve had this gut feeling for 12 years that this is wrong.”

Bonnie-Jean Brooks, OHI’s president and CEO, said that like the Charlotte White Center, OHI does not require residents to turn over their LIHEAP funds, but most of them do.

“So far, we have shied away from [requiring the surrender of LIHEAP funds],” said Brooks, who added that traditionally OHI’s case managers have helped residents fill out LIHEAP applications. “We do try to explain to the residents and their legal guardians that we need that money to help offset our expenses. With a few exceptions, they’re very good about turning over that money.”

Though Gilley said she is not seeking any financial reimbursement on behalf of Albee for thousands of heating assistance dollars Albee has not received over the years, Gilley said she is working with an attorney on Albee’s behalf.

“I’m not going to ask to recover the money; I just want this to stop,” she said. “I just want to open the public’s eyes to people like Margie. They should not apply for this money under this sneaky guise.”

Barbara Stone, a fuel assistance project manager for Penquis, which administers the federal LIHEAP program for part of the state, said the first time she has heard about this situation was this year from Gilley. Though she declined to speak about any specific person because of confidentiality reasons, Stone said a LIHEAP recipient whose utilities are covered in their lease payments receives a check directly. In other cases, checks typically are written to heating oil or utility companies.

“Most people who have heat included, their rent is higher,” said Stone. “In those cases we send the money directly to the client to help pay for the rent. We don’t send it to the landlord. Unless the client signs a certain document from a facility, they’re entitled to the money. It’s intended for the client, not the facility.”

Stone said a LIHEAP application asks for a name and address, details about the type and condition of the home the person lives in, documentation about the person’s income and whether utilities are included in their rent. There is nowhere in the application process that indicates whether a person is living in a small group home or what their monthly expenses are.

“All we look at is gross income,” said Stone. “We don’t know where their money goes.”

Deborah Turcotte, a spokeswoman for the Maine State Housing Authority, which receives and distributes LIHEAP funds in Maine for the federal government — often through partnerships with organizations such as Penquis — said the agency has been working with the Charlotte White Center and other agencies about where heating assistance money should flow.

“They may ask their client, ‘could you help to defray the cost of heat?’” said Turcotte. “It would be totally voluntary. It is our understanding that Charlotte White does not insist that their clients sign the funds over. There is a form for clients to sign but they are not forced to do so.”

Turcotte stressed that because of confidentiality rules, MSHA does not disclose to agencies whether their clients receive LIHEAP funds, which means a resident of a group home or any other renter does not have to disclose that they are applying for LIHEAP at all.

“We do not tell any organization whether one of our clients has received LIHEAP,” she said. “The relationship with MaineHousing is with the person who applied.”

Willey and Brooks said asking for LIHEAP funds from residents of Charlotte White and OHI is part of a bigger effort to identify and collect revenue from as many sources as possible. They said that in recent years, funding for their agencies has been cut sharply on a number of fronts, including MaineCare, while living expenses ranging from food to utilities have gone up. Brooks said most of OHI’s residents’ lease payments don’t cover the cost of their room and board, which is why the organization tries to collect money from the LIHEAP program and in some cases, food stamps.

“When the LIHEAP comes in it goes toward offsetting the deficit in their room and board,” said Brooks.

Willey said most of Charlotte White’s revenue has been flat funded for several years and that more recently, there have been “pretty severe cuts.”

“At the end of the day the LIHEAP money is the money of the person who applied for it,” said Willey. “If they choose to sign the check over it does really help us. It’s an important source of revenue. The more that funding has been cut, the more we’ve been forced to look at the things we traditionally didn’t.”

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