Archive for Monday, February 28, 2011

Utility cutoffs a life-or-death matter for Eudora couple recovering from house fire

February 28, 2011

Still recovering from a fire that gutted their Eudora home, Beverly and Jesse Wyant found themselves struggling to cover their electric bill.

They had been living in the refurbished house for several weeks when they were notified by the city of Eudora that their electricity would be shut off if they didn’t pay their bill.

Beverly Wyant didn’t see that as an option. Her 86-year-old husband is terminally ill and needs an oxygen concentrator to survive. Wyant would have liked for the city to wait five days until her state pension payment came or allow for a payment plan. But, the city set up a turnoff time.

Luckily, Wyant’s daughter came to the rescue, paying the bill to keep the electricity on. But the experience has left Wyant furious and asking what kind of protections are in place for people on life-support machines.

“That’s premeditated murder — if you know a person is on life-sustaining oxygen, and you pull the plug and you kill them,” she said.

The Kansas Corporation Commission, which oversees utility companies, doesn’t have any policy in place that prevents utilities from cutting off electricity in such as case. They also don’t have any jurisdiction over municipal utilities such as the one in Eudora.

What the KCC has is an informal complaint process where the state agency mediates problems that arise between customers and utility companies. The goal is to work out the problem within 10 days.

“Utility companies are historically very, very agreeable to working something out with customers when they call,” KCC spokeswoman Cara Sloan-Ramos said.

That program isn’t available to residents of Eudora, where the city provides electricity service.

In the case of the Wyants, city staff weren’t aware that an oxygen machine was needed, city administrator John Harrenstein said.

Wyant said that’s not true, adding that the city was fully aware of her husband’s situation.

Harrenstein said customers need to let the city know that they are on life-supporting machines and provide proof of their medical condition so the city can work something out when customers are having trouble paying bills, “So we can take it under consideration and prevent anything from happening to cause the loss of life.”

Harrenstein noted that city residents are notified three times before their electricity is shut off and have 10 days to pay the bill.

Westar Energy, the state’s largest utility company, has a special program for customers who are on life-sustaining machines, such as oxygen concentrators, kidney dialysis machines or electric feeding pumps.

But customers still have to pay their bills and should have a backup plan in place in case the electricity goes out, Westar spokeswoman Gina Penzig said.

If customers are having trouble paying bills, Penzig said they are given a 21-day extension to work with social services and other resources to find a way to pay the bill.

Westar has about 2,300 customers on the program.

Penzig said it’s the customers’ responsibility to have a backup plan in case of power outages.

“Whether it be a generator or a family member they can go stay with,” she said.

Even though her bill is paid, Wyant said she still wants laws to change to provide more protection for people in her husband’s situation and more regulations on municipal utility providers. She plans to speak at Eudora’s city council meeting tonight.

With a poor economy, Wyant said she believes the situation she faced could be a common one.

“Any of us can get to the point in our life were we get financially stressed very quickly — like, in 30 seconds,” Wyant said. “And what are you going to do?”

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