A New York woman has died after the power company servicing her home cut off service for non-payment. 68-year-old Desiree Washington, who suffered from congestive heart failure and relied upon an oxygen tank to stay alive, passed away alone at home after her medical devices stopped functioning when her access to power was removed.
• Public Service Enterprise Group, who serviced Washington’s home, is stating that the elderly woman’s account was “in serious arrears. They also denied Washington’s family ever told them about her need for medical devices.
• Washington’s family, on the other hand, states that $500 was paid on the account just two days before power was cut off. They also have evidence that PSEG was advised of her reliance on oxygen multiple times over the past four years.
• PSEG backtracked when questioned about their records, stating that they have “no indication” of a “medical condition in the home, denying that the family ever told them about the service. “We never would have disconnected service had we been informed of the circumstances,” a representative explained.
• PSEG, who is calling the death “a terrible tragedy,” also claims they made at least 15 attempts to connect with Washington for payment. Both they and Newark Police Department continue to investigate their role in Washington’s death.
What to Do if You Lose Your Power
It’s too late to save Washington from PSEG’s unethical decision-making process, but what about your own power account or your loved ones’? There are Chapter 6 protections that make it illegal for power companies to cut you off if you rely on power for survival. Knowing your rights can quite literally be the difference between life and death.
• First, know that most states make it illegal for power companies to cut you off if you are suffering from financial hardship due to “serious illness.” The definition of serious illness differs state to state, but generally includes anything a doctor deems serious enough to keep you from work.
• Both mental and physical illness can qualify as “serious illnesses,” for the purposes of saving your power account. This does mean that elderly citizens with dementia, veterans with PTSD, and others who suffer intractable mental or cognitive illnesses have protection.
• Power companies are not required to protect your service line, in most instances, unless they are aware of your condition. As with Washington’s case, proof is everything. Sending notice by registered mail, or delivering it in person, if possible, is better than simply advising a rep on the phone who may or may not enter the right notes.
• Your doctor or local Board of Health can help you seek the right diagnosis or information to prove that you are seriously ill. You must request that they speak with your utility company on your behalf, and often, sign waivers that allow them to intervene.
• Once a doctor or your local Board of Health is aware of your situation, they must contact your utility company within no more than seven days. Note that it is absolutely critical for the letter to contain the words “serious illness” specifically; power companies have rejected requests for protection without it.
• You are not required to disclose the nature of the illness, but it may be in your best interest to do so. Approvals are often easier for patients with specific diagnoses.
• Once submitted, most companies must provide protection for a minimum of 30 to 180 days, depending on the illness in question. These letters must be renewed regularly as they expire, but the good news is that many utilities will allow for a greater period of coverage if your illness is permanent, terminal, or chronic.
• Stay strong, know your rights, and don’t be afraid to fight for your right to electricity. Whether you’re using oxygen or just need power to stay warm, you have a right to protection under the law in most states. If you struggle to advocate for yourself, it is also possible to have a family member, friend, or even your doctor advocate on your behalf.