Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

January 15, 2014

Forum: Easy to CARE about neighbors in need

Each winter, especially as the weather turns frigid, Michigan residents rightly ask how to help our neighbors in need. We all want to make sure help is available, and that we’re providing not only immediate assistance, but the tools and understanding how best to prevent future emergencies.

An example of that approach is at work for income-qualified Michigan residents served by Consumers Energy. A new effort called the CARE (Customers Affordable Resource for Energy) program is providing people with help paying energy bills and past due balances, help affording their energy expenses going forward, and access to cost-saving energy efficiency upgrades - a toolkit designed to empower and keep costs affordable for the long term.

CARE is important because it represents a new way of addressing a familiar need. Consumers Energy, other energy providers, nonprofit organizations and state government have long provided assistance for residents who faced troubles paying bills. That help, however, arrived usually at a crisis point. People would receive financial help from the state Department of Human Services only when threatened with losing power. That assistance provided benefits, but it could lead to stress and confusion as people sought help with time running short before power would be disconnected. In winter especially, that disruption could be particularly fearful.

The new approach taken by CARE — a pilot program the Michigan Public Service Commission approved just in time for this winter — is to help take the crisis out of the equation. People qualify for help based on their income, from $17,235 for a one-member household up to $59,445 for a household of eight.

From there, the benefits are significant. CARE participants will be expected to pay no more than 60 percent of their energy charges each month. Any overdue balances at the time of enrollment can be addressed. And CARE customers receive energy efficiency information and assistance. People who participate receive help through this heating season and beyond.

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