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Iowa's energy assistance program had a record number of applicants last year

heating bill
Sara Gilbert
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LIHEAP is a federally funded program that provides financial assistance for heating bills for low-income people.

Colder temperatures are here and that means some Iowans can qualify for financial assistance for their heating bills. The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance program, or LIHEAP, helps to pay the heating bills for families or individuals and also can provide emergency funds for repairs.

Bill Marquess, energy assistance bureau chief for the Iowa Department of Human Rights, said there were 90,000 applicants last year and about 83,000 received benefit payments.

During the previous two winters in 2021 and 2022, the program had extra funds provided through federal pandemic relief totaling about $78 million, Marquess said. That's on top of its regular budget.

Marquess said LIHEAP was able to increase payments for its regular assistance and emergency help.

"During the pandemic, we were able to offer up to $3,000 to assist with a crisis. And now we're maxed at $500 on that, and that's a significant difference," he said.

That extra funding has run out, and was almost completely used up at the end of last winter, Marquess said.

"Our goal is always to get as much out into the community as possible. And the last two years showed us that even when we're handed an enormous amount of money, we were able to funnel that into the community," he said.

Marquess said the larger number of people applying for assistance during a period of increased funding shows these services are needed and highlights the greater need of wraparound services.

"That's where the agencies come in, and they really assess each household and they say, 'Okay, well, in addition to LIHEAP, in addition to SNAP, in addition to these other things, what family self sufficiency, skills, can we can we help teach? What employment or training programs might be available for this household to help get them to that self sufficient level?'" he said.

He said so far this year, the program has about half the number of applications they did at the end of the season last year, about 52,000. Marquess said the majority of people apply for assistance at the beginning of the winter heating season, in October, November and December. Applications are open through April and people can apply through their local community action agency.

According to MidAmerican Energy, 43,985 customers sought help through LIHEAP last winter, an increase of more than 3,700 from the 2020 winter. As of Dec. 15, more than 23,000 customers have sought LIHEAP assistance this winter.

Catherine Wheeler is Iowa Public Radio's All Things Considered host and a reporter.