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US pressed to release heating aid

Higher utility bills expected this winter

Anticipating cold temperatures and higher utility bills in coming months, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is urging federal officials to start releasing $3.47 billion in government funds allotted to help needy families pay to heat their homes.

Massachusetts households that are kept warm by oil heat — about 39 percent — can expect to spend a record $2,500, on average, this coming winter, according to a forecast released earlier this month by the federal Energy Information Administration. By comparison, residents who heat with natural gas can expect to pay $1,010 on average, as prices hover near 10-year lows.

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Because of budget cuts, heating assistance funding nationwide has dropped by about 30 percent in the last few years, from $5.1 billion in 2010 to $3.47 billion during the 2011-2012 winter. The decline means Massachusetts families have been receiving less aid each year, even as home heating oil has become more expensive.

Federal officials say they are still calculating how much money individual states will receive in total, but Massachusetts residents most in need will be eligible for up to $750 in aid, about $350 less than last year.

On Friday, Coakley detailed her concerns in a letter to Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services. The agency oversees the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.

“This news could not come not come at a worse time,” Coakley wrote. “Families across Massachusetts and the Northeast have continued to cut back on essential services through these tough economic times in order to address increasing home heating, electric, and gas bills. LIHEAP assistance is desperately needed by these most vulnerable Massachusetts households who cannot continue to absorb these rising costs.”

Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Health and Human Services Department’s Administration for Children and Families, said the agency plans to notify states soon about when they will receive funding.

Coakley is the latest Massachusetts leader to push federal officials to authorize heating assistance funds. For weeks now, US Representative Edward J. Markey and dozens of other members of Congress, have been calling for heating aid to be released. Housing and consumer advocates have also been pressing for the program’s funding level to be increased.

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.

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