Power of life

Katrina Paro walks to her armchair in her living room in Abilene. Paro is at risk of utility disconnection because of a high unpaid balance. This could be life-threatening because she uses oxygen for a medical condition. Nellie Doneva | For the American-Statesman

Power of Life

For critically and chronically ill, electricity cutoffs especially dangerous

ABILENE — When the electricity disconnection notice arrived at her Abilene home early this summer, Katrina Paro panicked. Doctors had recently diagnosed her with stage 4 chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She depended on an oxygen machine to breathe and a mechanized chair and bed to move.

Without electricity, she could die.

Tears streaming down her cheeks, she called a local energy assistance organization for help. Trying to pay a mortgage and make ends meet on a monthly $1,057 disability check had left little for an electric bill that averaged about $200 a month. Her balance had ballooned to more than $2,000.

“It got overwhelming,” she said. “I didn’t know where to turn. It was scary.”

Paro, 45, is one of about 10,000 Texans on lists of critically and chronically ill patients whom the state has promised to protect from power disconnections. But as Paro and other sick Texans have learned, those lists are no guarantee against power shutoffs for failure to pay.

In the past decade, private utility providers have disconnected the power of hundreds of medically vulnerable Texans, according to data obtained by GateHouse Media. While disconnections of residents like Paro, whose lives depend on electricity, remain rare, people with chronic conditions such as multiple sclerosis have been cut off with alarming regularity.

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What’s more, the Texas Public Utility Commission, the agency that oversees the lists, has rejected efforts to strengthen the protections and fails to track the outcomes when residents are disconnected.

Lists aim to shield the vulnerable

Getting on the list in the first place wasn’t easy for Paro. She had to lug her oxygen machine and navigate a walker around multiple offices to pick up forms and get a doctor’s signature.

“It’s so hard for me to be able to get out,” she said. “Just to turn a form in, that’s a lot.”

Katrina Paro has stage 4 chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Trying to pay a mortgage and make ends meet on a monthly $1,057 disability check left little for an electric bill that averaged about $200 a month, and she received a disconnection notice early this summer. Nellie Doneva | For the American-Statesman

A decade ago, the utility commission created two lists to shield vulnerable Texans like Paro from electricity shutoffs.

The critical care list, for residents on life support equipment, gives customers a renewable three-month moratorium against disconnection, followed by a 21-day notification period during which electricity companies must ensure contact by phone or in person with the customer and a secondary contact.

The chronic care list, for Texans with medical conditions that will be exacerbated without power or air conditioning, doesn’t come with a three-month buffer but does require a 21-day written notification period.

To get on the list, patients must provide a doctor’s written authorization.

The protections of the list, though, fall short of what other states provide and what groups like AARP, Public Citizen and the Office of Public Utility Counsel recommended when the utility commission adopted rules for the program in 2010.

Citing the life-threatening impact of power shutoffs, the groups asked that each proposed disconnection of a customer on the lists come before the commission for approval. They pointed to similar protections in states such as Maine and Rhode Island.

Texas ROSE, a ratepayer advocacy organization, pushed for a blanket prohibition against disconnecting residents on the lists, arguing that electricity providers should be required to find a solution for those unable to pay.

The commission rejected the recommendations, arguing that they amounted to allowing residents to “use electricity without paying for it.”

Since the commission approved its new rules in 2010, private electricity retailers have requested the disconnection of more than 3,500 critical care customers. Very few orders resulted in a power shutoff — just 21 since 2011. In most cases, a utility commission spokesman said, the electricity transmission companies that execute disconnections rejected the requests, because the customers were on the protected list.

Companies added that in some instances, critical care disconnections occurred after a customer died.

But among chronic care customers, disconnections are much more common. Of 1,168 disconnection orders, 428 ultimately resulted in a cutoff.

It’s unclear what happened to those residents.

Asked whether the utility commission is tracking the outcomes of such disconnections, Andrew Barlow, the commission spokesman, said, “Power companies are not required to file reconnect status reports.”

Barlow said the agency has never investigated a provider for ordering an improper disconnection of a critical or chronic care customer.

Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said chronic care disconnections can force people from their homes and worsen medical conditions.

“It is cruel, like kicking someone when they’re down,” said Carol Biedrzycki, the former head of Texas ROSE, which pushed for stronger protections. “The Texas electric market is a multibillion-dollar market. Surely there is a way to keep these vulnerable customers with a firm power supply.”

Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, says the Texas Public Utility Commission needs better utility cut-off protections for people with chronic health conditions. “We are much better off ensuring power is there for those who truly need it.” Deborah Cannon | American-Statesman file

Cooperatives face lawsuits

Vulnerable Texans who receive their power from electricity cooperatives receive even fewer protections in some cases. The utility commission requires cooperatives to provide general protections for customers, but it doesn’t spell out specific steps they must take.

Mike Williams, director of the Texas Electric Cooperatives association, said that while co-ops are not subject to utility commission rules regarding medically vulnerable customers, they generally follow them.

But in at least two cases in recent years, Texans dependent on oxygen machines died after their power was cut off by an electric cooperative, according to lawsuits.

In November 2015, a 70-year-old Liberty County man who depended on an oxygen machine for his COPD died after the Sam Houston Electric Cooperative shut his power off.

According to a lawsuit from Lester Berry’s family, Berry owed $129.62 when his power was cut off. The lawsuit claims that as a result, he wasn’t able to power his oxygen concentrator, leading to his death by suffocation.

“For two long days he law physically and mentally and emotionally tormented, knowing that he would die without the oxygen, knowing that the lack of oxygen prevented him from rising from the floor and seeking help, and knowing that no one knew of his predicament and therefore no one would intervene and save him,” the lawsuit alleged.

The Berrys’ lawyer said he followed the co-op’s protocol of notifying it of the need for life-sustaining medical equipment. In the past, the lawsuit noted, the utility had given Berry as much as four months’ leeway to pay his bill, leading the family to believe he would not be disconnected after just one month.

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A woman holds her 1-year-old daughter at their home in Waco on a very hot morning in August. The single mother, who has diabetes, COPD and asthma, is raising five children in the house, and she struggles to pay the electricity bill. Jay Janner | American-Statesman

Obstacles to getting on lists

Consumer advocates have long complained that the state’s critical and chronic care lists help only a small fraction of those who need it.

Over the past decade, the state’s elderly population has increased nearly 30%. But the number of Texans on the critical and chronic care lists has mostly stagnated, hovering around 10,000 since 2012.

“People do not know about the procedure of getting certified if they have a chronic condition,” said Randy Chapman, a legal advocate for ratepayers.

That was the case for a 39-year-old mother of five who sought help from Caritas of Waco to avoid an electricity disconnection this summer. The woman, who is not being named because she is involved in a domestic abuse situation, was struggling to pay a $392 electricity bill. Suffering from diabetes, COPD and asthma, she depended on an oxygen machine at night. Aid workers told her she would probably qualify for the list.

“I’ve never even heard about that,” she said.

For those who learn about the list, getting on it is another challenge. Chapman said the requirement to get a sworn statement from a doctor, which must be renewed periodically, is especially hard for low-income and ill Texans who lack transportation or have mobility issues.

Paro eventually found relief through the Rolling Plains Management Corp. and the United Way, which were able to arrange pledges for more than $1,000 in assistance. That didn’t pay off her entire delinquent bill, but it bought her some time as her electric company agreed to work with her on paying off the balance.

During the record-breaking heat of August and September, however, Paro said her electric bill doubled to about $400 a month, sparking fears that her utility debt could once again become unmanageable.

“I don’t want to get in that place again,” Paro said. “Ever since I got my diagnosis, I try not to stress too much on any one thing. Since I’m going to have a shorter life, I’d like to live it happier and in the way I want to.”

Dan Keemahill contributed data analysis to this story; Jessica Priest and Andrea Ball contributed to this story