Consumer groups seek Missouri utility shut off moratorium

    BRIEF

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    A coalition of consumer and health care advocates are asking the Missouri Public Service Commission to impose a moratorium on utility cutoffs for the winter to help control the spread of COVID-19.

    The Consumers Council of Missouri, with support from the Missouri Hospital Association, Empower Missouri and the National Housing Trust, filed the request Tuesday and asked for an expedited decision. The commission responded by inviting responses through Monday, after which it will decide whether to have a full discussion of the request or set it aside.

    A loss of utility services will force people to seek new housing, often with relatives or friends, and increased contacts can speed the spread of COVID-19, the request signed by attorney John Coffman of the Consumers Council wrote in the filing.

    “A moratorium on utility discontinuances will help flatten the curve by reducing the dislocation and mobility caused by the loss of essential utility services during the winter in Missouri,” Coffman wrote.

    The moratorium should continue until at least March 31, which is the date Gov. Mike Parson’s most recent order putting Missouri under a state of emergency expires, the request states.

    “The COVID-19 pandemic represents a major risk to health and safety during these winter months,” Consumers Council Executive Director Jackie Hutchinson said in a news release issued Wednesday. “The added strain of utility disconnections could increase stress on our health care system, through potential increases in transmission of coronavirus among families and communities.”

    The moratorium would only apply to utilities regulated by the commission. Publicly owned or not-for-profit utilities, like municipal power and water companies or rural electric cooperatives, would not be covered.

    “Homelessness is one of those social determinants of health that often plays an important role in health status,” Daniel Landon, senior vice president of the Missouri Hospital Association wrote in a letter supporting the moratorium. “Further, losing access to permanent and workable housing seems likely to promote the spread of the COVID-19 virus as residents become transients.”

    The request cited a White House Coronavirus Task Force report dated Nov. 29 that shows Missouri had the fifth highest positive rate on tests nationally and the 22nd highest per capita rate for new infections in the late November period covered by the report.

    The seven-day positive rate, stubbornly high for weeks, has been falling. It peaked near 25 percent on Nov. 18 and on Wednesday the Department of Health and Senior Services reported the rate at 19.1 percent. The highest rate, 51.6%, is in Worth County, which is the least populous in the state with just over 2,000 people.

    Worth also has the fewest total cases, 93, after the state health department reported four new coronavirus infections on Wednesday. It has the second-highest per capita rate for new infections over the past seven days.

    Statewide, the department reported the fewest new cases, 2,640, since Nov. 28 as the total since March grew to 330,846. The department has reported an average of 3,639 cases per day over the past seven days. The department’s dashboard, which has a three-day delay on its averages, reported 3,279 cases per day in the seven days ending Sunday.

    There was at least one new case reported in 106 of the state’s 117 local health jurisdictions.

    The department reported 28 additional deaths on Wednesday, raising the total since March to 4,383.

    The moratorium would be on top of the commission’s existing Cold Weather Rule, which bars regulated utilities from shutting off service to customers on days when the National Weather Service forecasts temperatures below 32 degrees.

    To avoid winter shutoffs at other times, the rule requires customers to pay half the amount owed or $500, whichever is less, and enter payment agreements with their utilities that will pay the remainder due within 12 months.

    Early in the pandemic, Coffman wrote, many major utilities, including Ameren, Spire and Missouri American Water, voluntarily refrained from shutting off customers. Those voluntary moratoria generally ended during the summer, he noted.

    Many of those utilities have obtained or are seeking commission orders allowing them to total the cost associated with COVID-19, including unpaid accounts in excess of normal delinquencies, for inclusion in future rate cases.

    “Consumers Council contends that if disconnection moratoria were justified for public health and safety at the onset of the pandemic, then a similar moratorium is certainly justified now, as the threat is spreading and the number of cases and of deaths are higher than before (and which are expected by public health officials to grow ever higher this winter),” Coffman wrote.

    Many people face losing their residences soon. While the FHA has extended a moratorium on foreclosures through Jan. 31, a moratorium on rental evictions issued by the Centers for Disease Control is still set to expire at the end of this month.

    Utility shutoffs during the pandemic will have the same effect as an eviction, forcing people to homeless shelters or other crowded spaces, Jeanette Mott Oxford, director of policy and organizing at Empower Missouri, wrote in support of the moratorium.

    “Neither homelessness nor overcrowding promote sheltering in place, hand hygiene, and other practices that public health officials recommend during this time of near-capacity hospital occupancy and very high rates of coronavirus transmission,” she wrote.

    The Consumers Council also asked for utilities to be barred from assessing late fees or other fees for non-payment during the moratorium period.