More than 20 million households are at risk of losing public services

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NEW YORK (NewsNation) — The increase in the cost of living and the impact of inflation has left millions of households in the US with outstanding utility bills, a problem that could worsen with power outages on the horizon and cooler weather ahead.

The National Association of Energy Assistance Directors, which compiles national data on energy assistance programs, says that 1 in 6, or more than 20 million households, are behind on their energy bills.

A primary source behind utility debt is an increase in energy prices. Natural gas prices have risen since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. The cost of natural gas rose 30.5% year over year in July, according to the US Department of Labor. The average electricity rate rose 15% in July, the biggest increase since 2006.

Across the country, millions more are more than 60 days past due and are at risk of losing their service as their bill comes due.

In March, the New York Comptroller’s Office said that 1 in 8 New Yorkers had not paid their utility bills. That’s 1.2 million people who owe a total of $1.8 billion on utilities, and it hasn’t gotten much better since then.

In New Orleans, some residents carry utility bills in the four figures. On Saturday, Entergy New Orleans hosted its first energy fair to learn more about payment options, energy efficiency education, electric vehicles and hurricane preparedness.

“This is a great opportunity, as long as we have the money to go ahead and help our residents.”

In Indiana, Duke Energy, the state’s largest energy provider, is considering a price increase of 7%, or $11 more on each bill starting in October.

Utilities blame inflation and the high cost of natural gas for inflated prices.

“This is a temporary rate increase. again, the cost of fuel fluctuates,” said Angeline Protogere, spokeswoman for Duke Energy.

With “pandemic” utility moratoriums expiring, power companies are bracing for outages, meaning it could be a long, cold winter for many families.

“We will continue with that moratorium until September 1,” said Patrick Stella of National Grid, an electric company that provides services in New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

For those drowning in utility debt, all 50 states received nearly $5 billion in federal funding for home energy assistance programs to help low-income families pay their high utility bills.

Usually first come, first served, and with millions of people in the same situation, waiting to call for help could leave people in the dark.

This has been a very hot summer for many parts of the country, leaving people running longer, which only increased their outstanding balances.

Without federal protections in place to prevent outages like those that existed early in the pandemic, utilities are seeing customers rack up debt at an unprecedented rate.

While late and unpaid utility bills are common and always have been, it is the amount of utility debt Americans have accumulated that is leading to calls for more federal assistance to pay these balances.

Before the pandemic, the National Association of Energy Assistance Directors reported that overall, Americans had about $8 billion in utility debt.

As payment moratoriums kicked in, the number began to grow to more than 13 billion. Then, in the first six months of this year, utilities raised rates and more Americans fell behind on their bills, adding $3 billion in utility debt in 180 days.

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