Public utility programs in place to help seniors and medically fragile customers

If you think public utilities are just cold, heartless, regulated monopolies that are forever bent on seeking rate increases, keep reading for another side of the story. Yes, indeed, there is some give-back.

For example, accompanying a recent bill from Southwest Gas was a flier that talked about residents with a qualifying medical condition being “eligible for priority natural gas service restoration” in situations where there are interruptions in service due to outages.

In addition, there are other programs that demonstrate human kindness at Southwest Gas, such as Seniors Helping Seniors, which takes into consideration the needs of those who live on tight budgets.

As might be expected, the seniors program is especially popular in retirement communities such as Sun City Summerlin. Now in its 20th year, the program enlists other businesses and organizations to make available energy-saving products and services at no cost to senior households that qualify. Complete information about the program, which runs from October through May, can be obtained by calling 702-382-4412.

And while it seems that NV Energy is forever in the forefront of seeking rate increases for providing electrical power, it, too, makes available an array of give-back programs.

Keep in mind that these are companies regulated by the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada, a state agency with responsibilities designed specifically to keep a close eye on their operations.

In that capacity, the commission’s basic purpose is to protect the interest of the general public. That’s because, in essence, these utilities are the only game in town. Generally, there is no competitive choice for the consumer, which puts utilities in the monopoly status.

Of course, it also comes down to this: If you don’t like buying your natural gas from Southwest, then you might try using flint sparks as your only recourse. And if you don’t care to deal with NV Energy, then you can go fly a kite, as Benjamin Franklin once did, and take your chances with a lightning rod, which certainly is not recommended in this column.

Interestingly enough, NV Energy may no longer be the only game in town as a provider of electrical power, thanks to the recent groundswell of solar energy operations in Nevada.

But irrespective of opinions regarding utilities, it’s fair to grant them credit for some of their efforts on behalf of the public interest. And the Southwest Gas program that puts a priority on restoring service for medically qualifying individuals is certainly deserving of acclaim.

Under the program, households where the disruption of natural gas service would be a matter of concern, for medical reasons, are urged to visit swgas.com or call 877-860-6020 to obtain the necessary certification form. That document, which must be authorized by a health care provider or social worker, ensures that gas service at that home “will not be wrongfully terminated or interrupted longer than reasonably necessary.”

NV Energy established a similar effort in 1997. Referred to as its Green Cross Program, the utility urges people who rely on constant electrically operated medical equipment to call 702-402-5555 to obtain an enrollment packet.

According to NV Energy, “once enrolled, you will receive advance notification of scheduled electric outages for service maintenance, and in the event of an unexpected power outage, we will take the steps necessary to restore power as quickly as possible.”

However, in the event of power outages caused by bad weather or equipment failures, NV Energy cautions those “who rely on life-support devices to protect themselves against occasional interruptions of service.” In that respect, you might consider owning an alternate power source, such as a generator.

Unfortunately, stories about utilities that cut off power for nonpayment of bills are all too common. But NV Energy has provided an answer to help avoid that situation, called the Third Party Protection Plan.

The third party can be anyone you know — “a relative, friend, clergyman, social agency, civic organization” — the utility explains. “Mailing the termination of service notice to a third party in no way obligates the third party to pay the bill or be responsible in any way for payment,” it adds. “However, it gives the third party ample time to take some form of action so that service is not terminated.”

Herb Jaffe was an op-ed columnist and investigative reporter for most of his 39 years at the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. His most recent novel, “Double Play,” is now available. Contact him at hjaffe@cox.net.

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