WASHINGTON – When Sam Perrin saw his electric bill, he thought he would have to choose between covering his wife’s medical test expenses, paying for the funeral of her sister — or keeping the house heated.
After all, the 78-year-old Hyattsville man only receives $400 a month from the Veterans Administration, and in September the Potomac Electric Power Co. asked for $87 — more than a fifth of his monthly income.
“I didn’t know what to do,” said Perrin, who lives with his wife, Jean, in Avondale Park, an apartment complex for low-income seniors. “It’s not the amount — it’s the stack-up. You don’t know which one is going to nail you.”
Perrin is one of 83,000 recipients who got help last year from Maryland’s Energy Assistance Program, which aids poor citizens in paying their heating bills. He also provides a glimpse into the lives — and sometimes tough daily choices — of 1,100 households surveyed in a new report released last week by the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association.
The study showed that 22 percent of those who received aid in the Northeast region, which includes Maryland, said they skipped paying or paid less than their entire home energy bill some months in the past year; a fifth reported they went without food for at least one day in the last five years, and 28 percent said they did not have medical or dental care in the past five years because of energy costs.
“We’re trying to take care of the most vulnerable,” said Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Conn., who secured funding for the survey. “These are people who are going to have to make choices between heating homes, buying their prescription and eating a meal.”
Such choices may become especially hard this winter with prices for heating oil and natural gas expected to rise by up to 70 percent, according to Mary Lou Kueffer, director of Maryland’s Office of Home Energy Programs.
With energy costs this high, Kueffer also predicted a 10 percent increase in applicants, but she said her program’s budget will probably remain flat at about $33 million.
Until officials finalize the budget in October, those in situations like Perrin’s can only try to keep abreast of bills by working with government agencies to secure grants that, in Maryland, cost electric utility customers 37 cents each month.
Perrin started working four years ago with the Prince George’s County energy office, which gave grants to 5,500 households last year.
“It makes their electric and heating bills more affordable,” said local program director Darrell Carrington. “(But) these are not intended to pay 100 percent.”
Perrin, like most people, must still bear his bill — but he pays it with pride.
“They’re trying to keep you responsible for your own bills,” he said. “You’re learning how to handle it yourself. You can do it with respect. . . . You don’t have to bury your soul to make ends meet.”