Your April 1 article regarding the state auditor’s report of the Nebraska Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program deserves a response. We acknowledge that DHHS erred in deciding how to distribute part of the additional federal funds received in 2011 for the LIHEAP program. While federal rules allow all LIHEAP payments to go directly to households, Nebraska’s rules are stricter regarding crisis payments. For any household that received a crisis payment (for example, to avoid a shut-off), any additional payment is to go to the utility company.
In August 2011, when we disbursed the additional funds received during the year, the decision was to send all payments directly to households rather than to the utility company in conflict with these rules.
This was to expedite the payment and meet the October 1, deadline to avoid losing these funds. Because we didn’t have time to verify the utility companies, our choice at that time was either to pay households or lose the $7.7 million benefit for our Nebraska citizens.
It is important to understand that every household that received a payment in 2011 met the income and resource requirements for the program. The maximum income allowed in 2011 was $12,632 for a household of one; $25,585 for a household of four.
In 2011, 45,129 Nebraska households met these requirements and received LIHEAP assistance.
Since the heating season was over, it would be logical that in some cases the payment would be a reimbursement for utility payments already made. The auditor reported in his findings that the typical case was that the household spent at least part of the August payment toward an outstanding energy bill.
Because many low-income families do not have bank accounts, they may have cashed checks at local businesses. Because eligibility is for the household, if one person died the rest of the household may have remained eligible for assistance.
My intention is to continue to work closely with the state auditor and as issues are found, necessary changes will be made. Many have already occurred:
• We have hired an internal auditor to coordinate audits and review program performance.
• We will be adding to the internal audit staff in the next fiscal year.
• The LIHEAP state plan and regulations are being reviewed to tighten control of the program and consider whether our current rules regarding payment ought to be changed.
• The LIHEAP program is now integrated with our other eligibility systems so that eligibility determinations can be done more efficiently and in a more timely manner.
• We are reviewing questionable cases identified by the auditor to determine if fraud occurred.
I have said that accountability to the people is a primary objective of the Department as we continue to strive to improve. That means where we have made mistakes, we will be accountable, take responsibility and “own” those mistakes, and, most importantly, fix them.
In this case, errors occurred; we acknowledge that fact and have already taken steps to address them. In the meantime, we appreciate the reports of the auditor of public accounts and will continue to work cooperatively with him.
By Kerry T. Winterer, CEO, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services