ST. PAUL — With a blanket of record-breaking snowfall already having blanketed much of the region and many in pandemic-driven economic hardship, Minnesota's two U.S. senators signed on to a bipartisan letter urging the quick release of federal aid to low-income families for their heating bills.

U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, both Minnesota Democrats, as well as U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., joined 37 bipartisan Senate colleagues in urging Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to release "assistance as swiftly and at the highest level possible" for Americans struggling to pay their heating bills this winter.

Per the senators' Oct. 14 letter to Azar, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) provides "a crucial lifeline" to low-income families and seniors on fixed incomes during extreme weather, like the cold winter months. And in a historic economic recession driven by the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans have been forced into unemployment and even poverty, making it harder to pay the bills.

“As state agencies work to prepare their LIHEAP programs for the coming winter, it is crucial that they have the resources they need to assist low-income households and seniors as soon as possible, especially in light of the current health crisis," the senators wrote. "As such, we request that you quickly release LIHEAP funds at the highest level possible to allow states to prepare for the upcoming season, so that low-income households do not have to choose between paying for heat and affording other necessities like food or medicine.”

According to a Friday, Oct. 23, joint news release from Klobuchar's and Smith's offices, the average cost of home heating for Americans is $911 per year — "unaffordable for millions of low-income households," the senators said. According to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, 15 to 20% of residential customers are 60 days or more behind on their electric and natural gas bills.

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While the state has barred major utility providers in Minnesota from disconnecting service to late customers during the coronavirus pandemic, local providers have only been asked to avoid disconnecting utilities voluntarily.