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HHS Slates $3.7B for Utility Bills, Social Determinants of Health

Utility bill affordability is getting more recognition as a social determinant of health as leading entities like HHS create programming to address it.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is investing $3.7 billion to help with utility bills, particularly home energy costs, via the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

Utilities and home energy cost affordability are both emerging social determinants of health that affect the health and safety of households, according to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. This funding, tailored to help low-income households maintain safe indoor temperatures as the winter season approaches, comes as a part of the Biden Administration’s Investing in American agenda, HHS said.

“LIHEAP is critical to lowering energy costs for families, and protecting the health and safety of households, particularly those that include older adults, individuals with disabilities, and young children,” Becerra said in a public statement. “With additional support from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda, this essential program will help households keep the heat on in the winter and stay cool in the summer while still being able to afford other essentials necessary for good health like food, medicine, and housing.”

HHS is allocating this money by way of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), an office under the HHS umbrella which encompasses the Office of Community Services. LIHEAP builds upon OCS’ previous efforts to funnel money to families and individuals needing help with heating, cooling, and other home energy funding.

“LIHEAP is a lifeline for households across the country who need support with their home energy bills,” ACF Acting Assistant Secretary Jeff Hild stated publicly. “Last year alone LIHEAP served more than six million households. By helping to alleviate the burden of home energy costs, LIHEAP advances ACF’s mission to promote the economic and social well-being of children, families, and communities.”

In addition to the $3.7 billion in funding, HHS and its partners at ACF and OCS have launched the LIHEAP eligibility tool. This tool is user-facing, meaning heads of households can use it to determine whether they qualify for LIHEAP assistance. The tool is available in English, Spanish, traditional Chinese, and simplified Chinese.

“We know that for families and individuals with low incomes, many of whom work overtime or work multiple jobs to make ends meet, it can often be difficult and time consuming to figure out if they meet the eligibility requirements for a specific program,” OCS Director Dr. Lanikque Howard said in the press release. “The LIHEAP eligibility tool alleviates some of this burden by allowing households to more quickly identify if they might be eligible in their service area.”

Ability to pay utilities bills is a social determinant of health that does not get discussed as often as other common SDOH, like food or transportation access. Yet, being able to pay one’s energy bills can impact the health and safety of one’s home. In the summer, extreme heat can cause serious health issues, while winter temperatures can likewise affect health and well-being.

That is not to mention the impact specialized medical equipment, much of which requires electricity, can have on utility bills.

This latest move from HHS underscores the importance of home energy affordability as a social determinant of health.

Other organizations are likewise investing in home energy affordability.

Just a few weeks before the HHS announcement, Boston Medical Center launched its Clean Power Prescription, a pilot program designed to address utilities as a social determinant of health.

Through the pilot program, clinicians will be able to prescribe a lower energy bill powered through clean energy generated via solar panels on a BMC building, the organization said.

“Through Clean Power Prescription we will directly support the health of our patients and community while helping to reduce energy-related financial stresses and provide greater peace of mind at home, which we know can support overall wellness in their lives,” Alastair Bell, MD, MBA, President and CEO of BMCHS, stated publicly.

The BMC pilot will begin with 80 households with eligible patients in BMC’s Complex Care Management program. Recipients will get monthly credits that equate to an average of $50 each month. This shakes out to around $600 in savings per household annually, or 30 percent of the average Boston annual electric bill.

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