Monday, March 19, 2012

Changes in Health Benefits for Low-income Community

Pennsylvania Health Law Project Website

On February 7, PA Governor Corbett proposed a state-wide budget that would eliminate General Assistance cash benefits entirely, and significantly reduce GA-related Medical Assistance for residents of the Commonwealth.

While a lot can change as the proposed budget moves through the General Assembly on its way to final passage by June 30, it is important to focus on some of the other changes to health care benefits for the low-income community that are taking place across the region.

MATP Co-pays

On May 1, the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) is planning to start a $2 co-pay ($4 per round trip) for people using the Medical Assistance Transportation Program (MATP) for trips to the doctor’s office and other health-related appointments.

According to DPW, some people will be exempt from the co-pays. These include the following:

· Consumers under age 18
· Pregnant women (through their 60-day post-partum period)
· Consumers in hospice
· Consumers in personal care homes without transportation for residents
· Women on MA through the Breast & Cervical Cancer Prevention Program

All other MATP consumers who use paratransit or taxi services will be responsible for the co-pay, while people who escort the consumer to the medical appointment are not. It is unclear, at this point, how DPW will enforce the co-pay for people who do not have the funds.

Prescription Drug Limit

Starting January 3, adults on Medicaid who use the ACCESS card to get their prescriptions had their coverage limited to six prescriptions per month. Beginning March 1, Medicaid recipients in northwestern PA with United Healthcare Community Plan as their managed care administrator will also be limited to six prescriptions each month.

If you have Medicaid and Medicare, Medicare Part D covers most of your drugs. This change applies to prescriptions that are filled with a PA ACCESS card or by United Healthcare.

Women who are pregnant, and adults who live in a nursing home are excluded from the drug limit, along with people in Intermediate Care Facilities for the Mentally Retarded (ICF/MR).

Many drugs prescribed by your doctor for serious conditions or illnesses are covered by an “automatic exception,” meaning you can get the drugs even after the six prescriptions are filled each month. See the box below for more advice on how to deal with this limit.

PA Act 22 of 2011

Signed into law by Gov. Corbett on June 30, 2011, Act 22 gives DPW the authority to make significant changes to Medical Assistance benefits and provider reimbursement rates without the traditional oversight by the PA General Assembly or the Independent Regulatory Review Commission.

What this means for Medicaid consumers across the state is that changes in their benefits can occur much more quickly than in the past. The decision by DPW to start co-pays for MATP on May 1 is an example of how DPW intends to use Act 22 to make benefit changes.

If you get an official notice from DPW about a benefit you receive such as Medical Assistance or General Assistance, take the time to read the notice to see how it affects you and/or your family members.

Also, please visit the Pennsylvania Health Law Project website at for current information about changes to benefits, and your rights and responsibilities under the law.

Talk to your Doctor About a “Work-around” Plan

If you received notice from a DPW Medicaid managed care plan that you will have a prescription drug limit each month, talk to your doctor(s) about a way to ensure your medical needs will be met.

Many drugs for serious medical conditions are covered by an “automatic exception,” meaning that you can get the prescription filled even after you reach the six prescription monthly limit. By getting prescriptions not covered by the “automatic exception” filled first, you may be able to obtain all of the drugs you need each month.

Talk to your doctor about your needs, and go the Pennsylvania Health Law Project website for a fact sheet about monthly limits to prescription drugs.

Executive Director’s Desk

For over 35 years I have had the privilege of serving the civil legal needs of the low-income community in Ohio, Wyoming and Pennsylvania as a legal aid professional.

In that time I have witnessed the “highs and lows” of government support for legal aid, and the ways in which funding has increased or decreased as a result of changes in the economic prosperity of our nation, and public policy decisions that are made as a result of these conditions.

The recent economic downturn that our nation is slowly emerging out of has placed a tremendous strain on government budgets at the federal, state and local levels. This has lead to significant funding cuts for legal aid, and for other social service organizations that serve the poor.

Since last summer, state support for civil legal services has been cut by 20 percent, while federal funding has been cut by 14 percent. This is in addition to historically-low interest rates that diminish support for legal aid from the Pennsylvania Interest on Lawyers Trust Account (PA IOLTA).

So far, Northwestern Legal Services has been able to handle these cutbacks in funding without reductions in staff or program services. I do not know, however, the added challenges that the future will bring, and how this will impact the legal assistance we provide throughout northwestern Pennsylvania in the days ahead.

What I can promise to do to people who look to us for help is offer my pledge to use whatever resources we have to continue to serve the legal needs of the low-income community through direct representation and counsel, brief service and telephone advice, along with community legal education and outreach.

Despite significant cuts in funding, our mission is still the same.

Very truly yours,

Robert A. Oakley, Esq.
NWLS Executive Director

NWLS Executive Director Receives Excellence Award

NWLS executive director Robert A. Oakley, Esq., was named a 2012 Excellence Award honoree by the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network (PLAN), the agency that administers state funding for civil legal services.

Oakley was honored for his 35 years of service to legal aid as a community educator, board member, staff attorney and managing attorney for a legal services organization in Ohio, and as executive director of programs in both southeastern Wyoming and northwestern Pennsylvania.

In addition to his years of service to legal aid, Oakley has been active in community groups in the region. He is currently the board president for the JFK Center, Inc., a neighborhood organization that provides a wide variety of essential services to inner city residents of Erie.

Oakley joins NWLS staff members Caulene Sanford, Debbie Place, Paul Troskosky and Jim Montero, along with board members Thelma Grady, Jay Alberstadt and Tom Tupitza, as Excellence Award honorees. The 2012 awards ceremony will take place March 27 at the Harrisburg Hilton.

NWLS Online Application for Legal Aid

Application for civil legal aid from NWLS is now available online 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The NWLS website, , has an online application that enables people to request legal services via the Internet. This feature is especially helpful to low-income individuals who cannot call the NWLS central intake unit during normal business hours.

Please be aware that an online application for legal aid does not guarantee that you will receive services from NWLS. Applicants must still meet income and asset guidelines established by the federal government, and have a type of civil case that is accepted as part of our program priorities.

When you apply for legal aid online, a staff member from the intake unit will get back to you on the status of your request no later than 5 business days from the time of your application.

If you have a legal emergency that requires immediate attention, such as a sheriff sale scheduled for your personal property, or the need for a protection from abuse order, do not use the online application. Give our central intake unit a phone call as soon as possible at (toll-free) 800-665-6957, or in Erie at 452-6957. The unit is open Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

When you do use an online application, be careful that your contact information is correct so we are able to get back in touch with you.

The NWLS online application was created with funding from a special project grant by the Pennsylvania Interest on Lawyers Trust Account (PA IOLTA).

NWLS Online Application at

Changes to SNAP

Asset Testing for Food Stamps to Begin May 1

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, (SNAP) in Pennsylvania, better known as food stamps, will implement some significant changes to eligibility guidelines.

Beginning May 1, the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) plans to reinstate asset testing for people who want to receive food stamps. Asset testing in the state had been removed from the guidelines in 2008 because of the economic effects of the recession.

New SNAP Guidelines

Households with residents age 59 or younger with assets above $5,500 will no longer be eligible to receive food stamps. Households with residents age 60 or above, or those with disabled individuals, will be limited to assets totaling $9,000.

Household assets include cash on hand, cash in checking or savings accounts, and any stocks or bonds.

Not included as assets in the new guidelines are a home, your primary vehicle, pension plans from your work place, educational savings accounts, clothing or any jewelry you may own.

A second vehicle is exempt from the asset guidelines if its value is less than $4,550.

Nutrition Assistance

Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food stamps were created in 1964 as part of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” The program was designed to offer “nutrition assistance” to low-income households with the goal of providing all people with a low-cost, nutritionally-adequate diet. By 2004, all states has adopted the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card as way to administer the program to recipients.

Your Right to Appeal

You have the right to ask DPW for a hearing to appeal a decision of or failure to act by the Department which affects your benefits or that you believe is unfair or incorrect. You may file the appeal at your local county assistance office (CAO). At the appeal hearing, you may represent yourself, or someone else, such as a lawyer, friend or relative may represent you.

If you appeal, you may have an agency conference scheduled before the hearing to help resolve the issue sooner.

NWLS May Be Able to Help

If you want help with your appeal to DPW regarding SNAP, call our intake unit to see if you qualify for civil legal aid with this issue. You can call the NWLS intake unit (toll free) at 800-665-6957, or in Erie at 452-6957. The intake unit is open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

You can also apply for legal aid from NWLS online at

Applying for SNAP

While eligibility guidelines for food stamps (SNAP) may change, the process of applying for the program remains the same. You can apply for SNAP three ways:

· Online
You can apply for SNAP online using the COMPASS website. The link can found at

· In Person
You can visit your local county assistance office and apply in person

· By Mail
You can download and print the application from the DPW website and mail the completed application to your county assistance office

For more information, visit

PA Joins Federal-State Settlement of Mortgage Foreclosure Abuse

On February 9, Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly announced that Pennsylvania joined a federal-state agreement with the nation's five largest mortgage servicers over abuses involving foreclosure and mortgage servicing.

"This settlement provides an estimated $266 million in assistance to Pennsylvania, including principal reductions for consumers struggling to avoid foreclosure, refinancing relief for homeowners who are 'underwater' - owing more than their homes are now worth - and payments to borrowers who lost their homes," Kelly said.

Kelly said the proposed agreement with Ally, Bank of America, Citi, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo addresses concerns by state and federal investigators that loan servicers signed foreclosure-related documents without really knowing whether the facts they contained were correct.

Kelly said that many of the borrowers impacted by this settlement will be contacted directly by their bank or mortgage servicing company, while others may receive official notices from the Attorney General's Office or the national settlement administrator.

She encouraged consumers to closely monitor the Attorney General's website and the national settlement site for additional updates to help verify eligibility, contact the appropriate financial institution or to report problems

Online Sites

(The national website with information for consumers who may be impacted by the settlement)

(The website for the Pennsylvania Attorney General)

On the Web

A comprehensive list of homeless shelters, soup kitchens, food pantries and food banks for many communities in Pennsylvania and across the nation. The directory also lists other services such as free medical/dental clinics, domestic violence shelters, day shelters and outreach centers. A quick and easy way to find resources in your community for people in need.

The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV) website is dedicated to information and resources for victims of domestic violence in Pennsylvania. It has a comprehensive list of domestic violence shelters in counties across the Commonwealth, along with safety tips and advice for people dealing with abusive relationships. Due to concerns about abusers’ ability to track Internet usage on computers, PCADV does not provide assistance or offer referrals via e-mail.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Advice on Evictions

By John Gandrud, Managing Attorney, NWLS Central Intake Unit

Evictions are an unfortunate reality for low-income people who struggle to make ends meet. If you face an eviction, or the threat of eviction, here is some practical advice to keep in mind as you work through your housing problems.

Non-payment of Rent

Perhaps the most common cause of eviction is non-payment of rent. While there can be many reasons this occurs, the fact you did not pay your landlord what you owe is legal grounds for them to seek an eviction from the court.

If you know you cannot pay your rent on time, but you face a temporary situation that leaves you short on cash, talk to your landlord. Some landlords may accept late payments if they know the reason for the delay, and when you will be able to get back on schedule for the rent.

Housing counseling agencies such as the ones listed on this page may be able to offer cash assistance for rent when an emergency occurs. Call them to see if you qualify for help.

If you know you can't pay the rent for reasons such as job loss or loss of benefits, and you don't know when your situation will improve, you are going to need to find alternative housing. Tell the landlord about the difficulty you face, and call housing counseling agencies to see what options may exist for you.

As a general rule of thumb, you have between 45 to 60 days from when you receive an eviction notice, to when you must vacate a property when ordered by the court. That's how much time you have to find other housing, so don't delay in making arrangements.


Sometimes people refuse to pay their rent because there is a serious problem with the dwelling such as a leaky roof or plumbing that doesn't work. Rather than withhold rent, be sure to talk to the landlord about the problem and keep a record of your contact with him or her.

Many communities have code enforcement agencies that will enforce building codes for rental units. Call code enforcement for serious problems that your landlord does not fix promptly.

If your landlord ignores your complaints, and code enforcement cannot help, you will need to find other housing. At this point it may make sense to withhold rent in order to save money to move into other housing.

Non-payment of rent is still legal grounds for eviction, but the court may reduce the amount of unpaid rent you owe for the time you spent living in unsafe conditions that your landlord refused to repair. That is why you need to report serious problems to your landlord, and keep a record of your contact.

Call Legal Aid

If you get an eviction notice from your landlord, or a threat of eviction, call Northwestern Legal Services to see if you qualify for legal advice from one of our staff attorneys. Do not wait until the day before the hearing at the district magistrate office to seek help, call us while you still have time to explore options for your housing needs.

You can reach NWLS in Erie by calling 452-6957, or outside Erie toll-free at (800) 665-6957. You can also get more information about housing law at our website at

Housing Counseling Agencies To Call for Eviction Help

If you qualify, these agencies may offer help if you are faced with an eviction:

* Erie County — St. Martin's Center 452-6113
* Erie County — GECAC 459-4581
* Mercer County — Homeless Prevention & Rapid Re-Housing 342-4012
* Crawford County — Center for Family Services 337-8450
* Venango County — Office of Economic Opportunity 432-9767
* McKean County — Northern Tier Community Action (814) 486-1161
* Warren County — Warren/Forest Counties EOC 726-2400
* Elk County — Northern Tier Community Action (814) 486-1161
* Potter County — Northern Tier Community Action (814) 486-1161
* Cameron County — Northern Tier Community Action (814) 486-1161
* Forest Country — Warren/Forest Counties EOC 726-2400

Local county assistance offices and faith-based charitable organizations may also offer assistance with temporary shelter and help finding a new place to live.

My Brush with Homelessness

Editor's Note: We asked a NWLS law worker to reflect on his own experiences with the threat of homelessness for this edition of our newsletter.

We all know it exists, most of us have seen it, and, like many others, I thought it could never happen to me.

Also, like many others, it almost did -- more than once.

My first experience with homelessness came several years ago. My family was evicted from an apartment we were sharing with a relative after an issue came up in our rental agreement and we were forced out. We had no money saved and a limited income. My wife, daughter and myself shared one bedroom at my mother’s house with all our belongings stacked in her dining room.

After several months, we got "on our feet" and got our own apartment. Ten months later I lost my job and we were evicted again. So it was back to my mother's house with my daughter and my now-pregnant wife. Fortunately, we were able to get back on our own again about two months later.

My wife and I realized we needed to prevent his type of thing from happening again. We attended a month-long credit counseling program and used money from employment and income tax returns to pay off our outstanding debts. I went back to school, earned a degree and found a good, full-time job. Things were looking up; we began to search for a home to purchase.

We were accepted into the Habitat for Humanity program and began to go through the process of securing our home through the agency.

Then, the unthinkable happened. Our landlord showed up at our door with an eviction notice after he decided it was easier to get rid of us than to fix the living conditions that made our apartment unsafe. Did I mention that this was two months before Christmas?

This time, our saving grace came from the kindness of good friends and relative strangers who provided my family with a financial gift that enabled us to find a new apartment while we continued through with Habitat for Humanity.

Thankfully things worked out and we are now in our new home.

What I understand quite well, though, is that unfortunate circumstances can happen to anyone, and any of us could be homeless.

Executive Director's Desk - "Home for the Holidays"

The above phrase is heard throughout the holiday season. Sometimes we do not think beyond this simplistic yet heartwarming phrase. I hope we pause to think about this now.

Unemployment is extremely high in our region, as is poverty. During this holiday season, let us ponder the effects poverty has on our community and on our children, and further, what we can do to personally help.

Job loss and poverty can certainly lead to the real threat and reality of being homeless. Individuals and families face this threat every day. While many of us have never been in such a situation, we ought to work towards ensuring that no one is ever homeless.

The articles in this newsletter outline the law and rights of people facing the loss of housing through the legal process. Certainly this is important information. But we should also know the helping organizations in our communities which include homeless shelters, housing assistance programs and other local human services organizations.

Perhaps we should say, "Have a Home for the Holidays."

Very truly yours,

Robert A. Oakley, Esq.
NWLS Executive Director

The Face of Homelessness in America — HUD's Annual Report to Congress

On June 16, 2010, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released its annual report to Congress on homelessness in America.

The annual report is generally considered the best estimate of homelessness across the nation.

Among the findings in this document are the following:

* On a single night in January 2009, there were an estimated 643,067 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people nationwide.

* Of this number, about 60% of the homeless were in emergency shelters or transitional housing, while 40 % lived "on the street" or in other places not meant for human habitation.

* From October 2008 to September 2009, nearly 1.56 million people in the US used an emergency shelter or a transitional housing program.

* While the number of homeless individuals decreased slightly from 2008 to 2009, the number of homeless families increased, probably as a result of the economic recession.

* A "typical" sheltered homeless person in 2009 was an adult male, a member of a minority group, middle-aged, and alone.

McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987

The first piece of federal legislation that directly addressed the problem of homelessness in the US was the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987.

Signed by President Ronald Reagan on July 22, 1987, the act has been amended and re-authorized several times since it went into law, and its purpose is to provide funds and coordinate resources to meet the critically urgent needs of the homeless in the nation.

The original McKinney Act consisted of fifteen different programs designed to address the needs of the homeless, including the Continuum of Care Programs: the Supportive Housing Program, the Shelter Plus Care Program, and the Single Room Occupancy Program, as well as the Emergency Shelter Grant Program.

The Act also provided a definition of "homelessness" to designate those individuals and families eligible for rights and protections under the legislation.

Title VII of the KcKinney-Vento Act was amended by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 to address the issue of education access for homeless children and youth. Included in the provisions was a definition of "homeless children and youth" as individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, such as children living on the streets, as well as in motels and migrant campgrounds due to a lack of adequate housing.

Applying for Public and Subsidized Housing

By Judy Wilson, NWLS Managing Attorney, Erie Office

Public and subsidized housing are programs funded by the government to provide decent and affordable homes to low-income people.

Public housing is housing which is owned and operated by a local Housing Authority. Usually your rent and utilities are much lower than if you rent from a private landlord, and generally it is no more than 30 percent of your household income.

Subsidized housing includes many programs such as the Section 8 program or privately owned projects where landlords receive a subsidy or portion of the rent from the government based on the income of the tenants. Your portion of the rent is usually no more than 40 percent of your adjusted gross income.

Application for public housing is made at the local Housing Authority. Application for subsidized housing programs varies depending on the type of housing program. The Section 8 programs are administered by the local Housing Authorities. Because there is such a demand for this program, the program is not always open to take new applicants. Applications for subsidized housing at privately owned projects or buildings can be made by contacting the project directly. There are often waiting lists to get into all of these types of housing.

When you apply for these programs, several factors can be considered to determine if you qualify, including the following:

* Whether you have a criminal record
* If so, what kind of criminal activity was involved
* Your credit history
* Information concerning what sort of tenant you have been in the past.

If your application is denied you will receive a letter explaining why. The letter will explain that you have the right to request a conference to discuss the reasons your application was denied and to allow you to explain anything which you believe might cause them to reconsider your application. These conferences must usually be requested within 10 days of the date of the letter.

You can also call NWLS to see if you qualify for legal representation regarding your denial.

To learn more about public housing and subsidized housing in your county and your rights, contact your local Housing Authority or HUD, or go to their websites for more information.

Contact Numbers for Housing Authorities (HA) in Northwestern PA

Bradford City HA — 362-3535

HA of County of Erie — 665-5161

Erie City HA — 452-2425

Franklin City HA — 432-3416

HA of Elk County — 965-2532

HA of City of Meadville — 336-3177

HA of Venango County — 677-5926

HA of Oil City — 676-5764

Mercer County HA — 342-4000

HA of McKean County — 887-5563

Potter County HA — 274-7031

Titusville HA — 827-3732

Warren County HA — 723-2312

On the Web

Here are some websites that address the issue of homelessness:

This website provides contact information for homeless shelters across the nation.

Your online guide to legal aid information in Pennsylvania contains a wide variety of legal topics including housing law on evictions and tenant rights.

Are you in danger of losing your home through foreclosure? The Homeowners Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program (HEMAP) can help. The HEMAP Help Center is a website designed to help you complete your application to HEMAP, a program that provides financial assistance to qualified Pennsylvania homeowners who are in danger of losing their houses through foreclosure.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Electric Rate Caps Ending Locally in 2011

Residents of Northwestern PA Can Expect Dramatic Increase in Electric Bills
By Attorney Harry Geller, Executive Director, PA Utility Law Project

Beginning next year (2011), residents of northwestern Pennsylvania can expect a dramatic increase in their electric bills.

For more than a decade, electric rates have been frozen and electric prices have remained stable. On December 31, 2010, these rate caps will end for the major electric distribution companies serving northwestern Pennsylvania. Companies such as Penelec, Allegheny Power and Met Ed will begin to pass on the cost of electric generation to their customers.

Unless low-income consumers of regulated utilities begin to act now, the impact of these higher rates may have devastating effects.

In some areas of the state where electric rate caps have already come off, customers have seen increases of about 30 percent in their electric bills. While northwestern Pennsylvania rate increases may not be quite as dramatic, they will certainly be substantial.

The actual rate charged to consumers will be subject to market conditions such as energy supply and demand, and global economic conditions.

We expect price increases for electricity to have the greatest impact on low-income households. Those households, who already must choose between paying for electricity or for other essentials, simply may not be able to fit increased electric costs into their budgets.

You Should Act Now

Since the change is coming soon, consumers should act now before their electric bills increase next year.

Low-income households can enroll in and/or receive assistance from utility Customer Assistance Programs ("CAP"s) and the three programs providing free weatherization and conservation services.

These conservation programs are the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), and the utility company Low Income Usage Reduction Programs (LIURP), and the Act 129 Energy Efficiency and Conservation Programs.

Customer Assistance Programs

Customer Assistance Programs (CAPS) can help low-income consumers lower monthly utility bills. The household income is determined and bills are based on a percentage of income or on a discounted rate so that monthly payments are generally reduced.

Some CAPs also include the forgiveness of outstanding past debts. In order to continue receiving CAP benefits, full and timely payment of CAP bills is required.

Weatherization Assistance Program

The Weatherization Assistance Program(WAP) is administered in Pennsylvania by the Department of Community and Economic Development ("DCED"). WAP provides low income households free weatherization services that help reduce energy consumption and energy bills. The services available under this program include a home energy audit, the installation of energy efficiency measures and in-home education about energy conservation. The energy efficiency measures can range from the installation of roof or wall insulation to the replacement of inefficient furnaces and appliances.

For the next three years, the weatherization program will receive additional 'federal stimulus' funding to assist low income households weatherize their homes. As a result, the average weatherization job on each household will be more extensive and thousands of additional homes will be served.

Low Income Usage Reduction Program (LIURP)

LIURP is administered by local electric companies under the oversight of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. LIURP is an education and conservation program targeted to high energy users. Qualifying households receive services similar to those in WAP such as an energy audit, free installation of energy efficiency and conservation measures and free information about energy conservation and usage reduction.

Act 129 of 2008

Act 129, enacted by the Pennsylvania legislature in 2008, requires the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to administer and oversee the design and implementation of Energy Efficiency and Conservation Plans by regulated electric utility companies such as Penelec.

The overall goal of Act 129 is to reduce electricity consumption throughout Pennsylvania. The law requires that low-income households receive special programs and attention. Electric companies will be providing targeted, free energy efficiency and conservation programs to help low-income customers reduce their electric consumption and reduce their overall electric bill.

Apply For Help Now

In conclusion, electric rate caps will end within the year and electric rates are expected to increase significantly. Low income consumers need to act now. The CAP and energy conservation programs provided by electric distribution companies and weatherization providers will assist to reduce the impact of the higher rates. Apply.

Contact Information for Penelec (First Energy Corp.)

Customer Assistance Program (CAP) 1-800-545-7741. CAP helps residential customers maintain electric service and eliminate their past-due balance. CAP offers a reduced bill that is based on a percentage of income and debt forgiveness.

WARM Program 1-800-207-9276 WARM is a free weatherization and energy education program for Penelec's residential customers in Pennsylvania. The objective of the program is to help customers save energy and money by reducing their energy consumption. This is done by installing energy conservation measures in the home and by educating family members on their use of energy.

LIHEAP Extended to April 2 — Other Changes

Pennsylvania’s Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) will extend the closing date for program benefits from March 15 to April 2. Other important changes to the program were announced as this newsletter was going to print:

· Regulated utility customers with a shut-off notice dated February 1, 2010 or later will be able to apply for crisis grants

· A household in PA may apply for a second crisis grant, subject to the $400 maximum payment

· All LIHEAP cash grant recipients will benefit from a supplemental $100 payment

· Households containing a disabled person; one who is 60 years or older, or a child 5 years of age or younger will get a second $100 supplement sent to their energy vendor.

Households must meet income eligibility requirements in order to qualify for LIHEAP benefits. For example, during the 2009 to 2010 winter season, a family of four must have a household income of $33,075 or less in order to receive assistance.

LIHEAP applications are available at county assistance offices across the Commonwealth. Applications are also available online at .

Executive Director’s Desk

The impact of the downturn in the economy has affected everyone in one way or another. Especially hard hit are the segments of our population that rely on fixed incomes. For instance, a retired person has seen his or her retirement "nest egg" dwindle or the disabled person now has to stretch an already stretched budget to accommodate increased costs in food, utilities and gasoline. More and more people are being laid off and forced to rely on public benefits to get them through these hard times.

When will the economy turn around is anyone's guess. More importantly for our low income community, the question is when will the economy recover and “trickle down” to help them? Historically speaking, it will be a significant amount of time after the general population has felt the effects of a growing economy.

What, then, can a person do to maximize resources in this economic time? One should find out all they can about the help that is available to them. Apply for public benefits, get information about different programs. This newsletter will give some of that information. More information is available on our website at Please find out all you can about maximizing your resources for yourself and your family.

Very truly yours,

Robert A. Oakley, Esq.
NWLS Executive Director

Food Assistance is a SNAP

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the new name for food stamps, a program that helps low-income individuals and families buy the food they need. SNAP is financed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, and administered in Pennsylvania by the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) through county assistance offices.

In order to qualify for SNAP, low-income families or individuals must meet certain income requirements. For example, under current guidelines the combined monthly income for a household of four cannot exceed $2,931. The monthly income, though, can be higher if the household contains an elderly or disabled individual.

It is also important to note that many other benefit programs such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) are not considered when applying for SNAP. As a general rule, licensed vehicles are not counted as part of household assets or income.

The only way to be sure if you qualify for SNAP is to apply for it.

The head of household or a responsible family member can apply for SNAP at a county assistance office. You can also download an application online at the DPW website at .

People who qualify for SNAP receive a Pennsylvania Electronic Benefits ACCESS card that works like a plastic ATM or bank card at supermarkets or grocery stores. The amount of your monthly SNAP benefit is placed in an electronic account and the food you purchase is deducted from the monthly amount using the ACCESS card.

If you think you were unfairly denied SNAP benefits, call NWLS to see if we can help resolve the issue.

Keep More of the Money You Earned

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) are important federal tax benefits for low-to-moderate income workers. The programs can either lower the amount of taxes you owe the government, or in some cases provide a cash refund, even if you did not make enough money to file a tax return.

According to national estimates, however, as many as 25 percent of eligible workers do not claim EIC benefits. That is money you earned leaving your pocketbook.

In order to get EITC or CTC benefits you must file a federal tax return, and meet these requirements:

· You Must Have Earned Income
Whether you were self-employed or worked for someone else, you must have earned income during 2009.

· Your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) Must Meet Certain Limits
For example, a married couple filing jointly with one qualifying child must have an AGI under $40,463 to qualify for the credit.

· You Must Have a Valid Social Security Number
You, your spouse (if filing jointly) and any/all qualifying children must have a Social Security Number.

· Your Filing Status Cannot be "Married Filing Separately"

· You Must Be a U.S. Citizen or Resident Alien All Year

· You Cannot Have Foreign Earned Income

· Your Investment Income Must be $3,100 or Less for the Year

Federal stimulus money expanded EITC and CTC money this year for larger families with three or more qualifying children.

Census 2010 -- It's In Our Hands

If people in northwestern Pennsylvania want their fair share of federal funds, then everyone must count.

This year (2010) the U.S. Census will again take place across the country, and a lot is at stake when the counting is done. Each year more than $400 billion in federal funds are distributed to states and localities on the basis of population statistics gathered in the census.

That is money used for things like schools, senior centers, bridges, highways, as well as the number of seats Pennsylvania has in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Key Dates

During March, census forms will be mailed or delivered to households all across the country. Thursday, April 1 is designated as "Census Day," a point of reference for you to use in filling out the form. In other words, on April 1 how many people lived in your residence.

From April until July, census takers (also called enumerators) will be visiting households that did not return a form by mail. By law, the Census Bureau must deliver the numbers to the President by December 2010.

The Census Form

The Census Form has 10 questions and takes about 10 minutes to fill out. It asks for basic information about household members. It does not ask for Social Security numbers or your legal status in the country.

You cannot fill out a census form online.

By law, the Census Bureau cannot share respondents’ answers with anyone, including the IRS, FBI, CIA or any other government agency.

A lot is at stake when people are counted, so please take the time to fill out the form — "It’s in our hands."

On the Web

Here is a list of 5 important Websites and online resources:

· Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Application for Social Services (COMPASS) — where you can access applications for benefits such as LIHEAP and SNAP (food stamps)

· Benefits CheckUp — a site that lists benefits for folks ages 55 and over

· The Social Security Administration's Benefit Eligibility Screening Tool (BEST)

· PA Career Link — Links to online services offered by PA Career Link. Includes Job Seeker , Education/Training; Vocational Rehabilitation; Veteran Services; Welfare Services, etc.

· PA Dept. of Labor — Forms for filing unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation, etc.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Homeowner's Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program

HEMAP Can Help Avoid Foreclosure

Statistics outlining the depth of the home foreclosure crisis in this country are startling.

Nationally, more than 2.2 million foreclosure filings - default notices, auction sale notices, and bank repossessions - were reported in 2007, up 75 percent from 2006, according to RealtyTrac, a California-based private company that compiles nationwide real estate statistics.

Furthermore, more than 1 percent of all U.S. households were in some stage of foreclosure during the year, up from .58 percent in 2006.

For homeowners in Pennsylvania facing foreclosure, though, there is a program that may help.


The Homeowner's Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program (HEMAP) was created in 1983 by Pennsylvania Act 91. The program, administered by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA), is designed to help homeowners avoid foreclosure by providing a loan to cure their debt.

Permanent residents of Pennsylvania who live in a one or two - family home (not a place of business) may be eligible for the program. The mortgage cannot be insured under the Federal Housing Act (Title II), and the default cannot be more than 24 months old, or more than $60,000 in total. Also, there cannot be more than one mortgage on the home.

In addition to above requirements, applicants must have a 5-year favorable mortgage credit history (this is the first time in default), and show that they suffered a financial hardship beyond their control, such as unemployment when a company downsized its operations.

Applicants who show they have a reasonable chance of resuming regular mortgage payments within a period of 24 months can be considered for the program.

Remember, however, HEMAP is not a grant. These funds are a loan and must be repaid. PHFA will create a repayment plan that is appropriate to the home-owner's situation.

Act 91 Notice

Under Pennsylvania Act 91, a financial institution must give notice to a homeowner that the mortgage is in default, and that the lender intends to foreclose on the property.

The Act 91 notice will be mailed to a homeowner by first class and registered or certified mail. Homeowners must arrange and attend a meeting with an approved credit counseling agency (listed in the notice) within 30 days of the postmark on the notice. The credit counseling agency will determine if the homeowner can apply for HEMAP.

Act 91 Means "Act Now"

If you receive an Act 91 notice, you must take immediate action to try a save your home from foreclosure. It is always good advice to call the lending institution right away to see if they can help with the problem, such as refinancing your home with a lower interest rate that you can afford.

In addition to calling the local credit counseling agency to see if HEMAP can help, you may also need legal advice from a lawyer.

NWLS May Help

Low-income homeowners who receive an Act 91 notice may qualify for free legal aid from Northwestern Legal Services. A staff attorney can help you understand the options available to you, as well as provide representation and counsel for the civil legal problems you face.

If you get an Act 91 notice, give NWLS a call in Erie at 452-6957, or outside of Erie (toll free) at 1-800-452-6957. An intake screener will talk with you to see if your are eligible for free legal aid.

For More Information . . .

The Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) has a web site with extensive information about HEMAP, and what you must do to qualify for assistance under this program. In order to find out more about HEMAP, and an Act 91 Notice, go to:

Executive Director's Desk

A few weeks ago I visited a local coffee shop to get my morning coffee . As I was going into the coffee shop a woman coming out of the coffee shop recognized me from our "Access to Justice" Cable Access Television Show in Erie. She told me that every other week she tunes into the show because she finds it very informative.

If the story ended here I would be happy to get that positive feed-back from a person who watches the show. But the woman went on to tell me that she recently saw our television show about the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). She said that she did not realize that LIHEAP would be available for her and that after she saw the television show she immediately applied for LIHEAP assistance.

She said she would not have applied for LIHEAP if she had not seen our show. She again complimented our community outreach efforts and thanked us for providing the information.

After talking to this woman, I realized more than ever how necessary it is to continue to do community legal education and outreach. Although our Cable Access Television Show is only available to cable television subscribers in the City of Erie, it actually reaches far beyond -- taping into the world wide web. NWLS processes these television shows into video clips and makes the content available for viewing via our website and media blog.

Beyond the world of video, we also post audio podcasts of our bi-monthly radio shows focusing on a variety of civil legal topics. We are excited about these new methods of delivery which reaches people who have impairments such as vision and literacy issues. Further, Northwestern Legal Services has incorporated RSS feeds to each posting which pushes the information to users who are tapping into this innovative way of acquiring knowledge and information. Our website also offers a pathway to a whole host of written legal education materials, self-help forms, government benefit calculators, and pre-screening tools.

Please visit our website at to learn as much as you can about your rights, benefits and our services.

Very truly yours,

Robert A. Oakley, Esq.
NWLS Executive Director

NWLS Board Member Attorney Jay W. Alberstadt, Jr. Receives Excellence Award

Erie attorney and NWLS board member Jay W. Alberstadt, Jr., has been selected by the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network (PLAN) to receive a 2008 Excellence Award.

Jay is being honored for a quarter century of service on the Board of Directors of Northwestern Legal Services. During that time, he has been instrumental to the growth and development of legal aid in the communities throughout our region.

Jay will be honored for his commitment to legal aid at the Excellence Award Banquet on Tuesday, March 18 at the Harrisburg Hilton and Towers. The Honorable Cynthia Baldwin, Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, will be the evening's featured speaker. See Tribute Video.

File Your Tax Return to Get Your Economic Stimulus Check

To help reduce the effects of a slowing economy, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will send tax rebate checks to over 130 million households beginning in May 2008 and continuing through the summer.

In order to qualify for the rebate, however, individuals and households must file a 2007 tax return.

The IRS will use the 2007 tax return to determine eligibility and calculate the basic amount of the payment. In most cases, the payment will equal the amount of tax liability on the return with a maximum amount of $600 for individuals ($1,200 for taxpayers who file a joint return) and a minimum of $300 for individuals ($600 for taxpayers who file a joint return).

Even those who have little or no tax liability may qualify for a minimum payment of $300 ($600 if filing a joint return) if their tax return reflects $3,000 or more in qualifying income.

For the purpose of the stimulus payments, qualifying income consists of earned income such as wages and net self-employment income as well as Social Security or certain Railroad Retirement benefits and veterans' disability compensation, pension or survivors' benefits received from the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2007.

However, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) does not count as qualifying income for the stimulus payment.

It is also important to note that a payment under the economic stimulus plan does not have any effect on eligibility for needs-based programs such as Food Stamps or TANF.

For more information about the economic stimulus plan, go to the IRS Website at,,id=177937,00.html.

Earned Income Tax Credits -- Keep More of the Money You Earned


People generally want what is coming to them -- especially if it is money they earned.

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a federal tax benefit for working people who earn low-to-moderate incomes. The program can offset some or all of the taxes workers must pay, and can help cover any federal tax workers still owe.

When the EITC exceeds the amount of taxes owed, it can even result in a tax refund to those who claim and qualify for the credit.

Originally approved by Congress in 1975, the legislation has become one of the largest anti-poverty programs in the country. According to estimates form the Internal Revenue Service, though, from 15 to 20 percent of individuals and households eligible for the tax credit in the past did not claim it on their returns.

In northwestern Pennsylvania, that means thousands of people did not claim millions of dollars that should have come to them -- money they earned.

EITC has no effect on certain welfare benefits, and should not be a reason to avoid the credit. In most cases, EITC payments will not be used to determine eligibility for Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), food stamps, low-income housing or most Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) payments.

Basic Requirements:

In order to apply for EITC, you must meet the following requirements:

* Must have a valid Social Security Number

* You must have earned income from employment, or self-employment.

* Your filing status cannot be married, filing separately.

* You must be a U.S. citizen or resident alien all year, or a nonresident alien married to a U.S. citizen or resident alien and filing a joint return.

* You cannot be a qualifying child of another person.

* If you do not have a qualifying child, you must:
* be age 25 but under 65 at the end of the year,
* live in the United States for more than half the year,
* not qualify as a dependent of another person

* You cannot claim foreign income (Forms 2555 or 2555-EZ)

Beware of RALs:

According to the latest IRS data, about 70 percent of EITC claims in the past were filed through commercial tax preparers, while less than two percent of recipients used Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) or other IRS-sponsored tax preparation programs.

Unfortunately, EITC claimants lose money when they use paid tax preparers coupled with "refund anticipation loans" (RALS) to file their federal returns.

Although paid tax preparers market RALs with the promise to "get you your refund quick," there is a high price to be paid for the service. The Brookings Institution estimated that the average cost for a tax filer who uses a tax return preparation service and RAL is over $200.

Because many low income families are less likely to have a bank account, these people pay addition fees to have an IRS check or loan check cashed.


VITA sites are now open across the nation through April 15. Electronic filing (having a return completed by computer to get a faster turnaround on a refund) is available in many VITA locations.

If a taxpayer files electronically, and has a bank account (checking or savings) where the refund can be deposited directly, the refund from the IRS will usually arrive within eight to ten days.

Check the Web

The IRS Website at has some handy programs to help you file for EITC, including an online "assistant" that can help you determine if you are eligible for the tax credits.


I-CAN! E-file can help you file your taxes for FREE. Just go to the I-CAN Website at and answer some simple questions on each screen and print your completed tax return. I-CAN!E-file can also electronically file your return to the IRS.
You can even use I-CAN!E-file to file your Pennsylvania state return. Keep in mind, however, that you cannot use I-CAN!E-file to file your State return by itself; you can do your Federal and State returns together or your Federal return by itself.

You can generally use I-CAN!E-file unless you or your employer have a non US address, own a business, are a church employee or clergy member, or sold real estate in 2007. If you are in the military or you are disabled you may be eligible for tax credits that are not included in I-CAN! E-file

On the Web

Be sure to check out the NWLS media blog at the Web address above to find video clips from our "Access to Justice" TV series on Erie Cablevision, Channel 2; and audio clips from our "Access to Justice" radio show on WJET AM 1400. The video and audio clips focus on a wide variety of civil legal topics of importance to the low-income community we serve.

The Pennsylvania Health Law Project (PHLP) is a state-funded legal aid organization that provides representation, counsel and advocacy for health care issues that impact low-income consumers, the elderly, and persons with disabilities in Pennsylvania. PHLP published two bi-monthly newsletter, "Health Law PA News" and "Senior Health News" that provide a comprehensive overview of news and information regarding health care topics for low-income households. You can view both current and past issues of the newsletters at the Web address listed above.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Advance Directives

By Colleen Stumpf, Esq. The Quinn Law Firm

If a serious illness or accident disrupted your life, who would manage your affairs?

A Power-of-Attorney, a Health Care Power-of-Attorney, and a Living Will are three documents that work to ensure that another person can handle your affairs if you are unable to do so yourself.

While these documents address different issues, they all have the goal of making your wishes and desires known to those people whom you designate as decision-makers at a time when you are unable.

Financial Power-of-Attorney

In a Power-of-Attorney, you may delegate financial decision-making authority to a trusted agent who will manage your financial affairs. You may choose to allow your agent to manage your affairs at any time or only when you are unable to do so for yourself.

Additionally, you may decide how much power you want your agent to possess - an agent may be permitted only to deal with one account or they may control all of your assets.

Health Care Powers-of-Attorney

In a Health Care Power-of-Attorney, you appoint a "health care agent" who can make health care decisions for you.

The health care agent is responsible for gathering information on your condition and treatment alternatives. The agent has a duty to make health care decisions that conform to your preferences and values and to act in your best interest.

If you do not have a health care agent, a health care representative may be appointed. The six classes from which a health care representative may be chosen, in order of priority, are: (1) your spouse; (2) your adult children (3) your parents; (4) an adult sibling; (5) your grandchildren; and, (6) an adult who has knowledge of your preferences and values.

If more than one member of a class is named as the health care representative, and the health care representatives cannot agree on a medical decision, then a physician may rely on the decision of the majority. If the class is divided evenly on a decision, the status quo is maintained.

Living Wills

Living Wills enable you to express your wishes regarding the process of dying.

A living will states your desires regarding the continuation or withdrawal of life-sustaining treatments - treatments that serve only to prolong the process of dying.

In a Living Will, you choose now which life-sustaining treatments you do or do not want to receive in the event you are no longer competent to make these decisions and you have an end-stage medical condition or were permanently unconscious.

To have an "end-stage medical condition" means that you have an incurable and irreversible medical condition that will result in death regardless of the continued application of life-sustaining treatment. To be "permanently unconscious" means that you have a total and irreversible loss of consciousness and are in a persistent vegetative state or an irreversible coma.

Once it is determined that you have an end-stage medical condition or are permanently unconscious, the physician will look to your directions in the Living Will to determine what treatments or procedures that you desire. If the physician has any questions, the physician may talk to your health care agent.

Having these three invaluable documents allows another person to manage your affairs if you cannot and eases the burden on your family and friends.

For More Information . . - The Erie County Bar Association offers more information on advance directives at their Web site. Use the "For the Public" menu (Tel Law) on the task bar. - This web site from the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network has an section titled "Elder Law" (60 +) and offers extensive information on advance directives as part of the civil legal topics.

Executive Director's Desk

"I didn't know about legal aid"

Northwestern Legal Services has been in existence for over 38 years. In that time, we served countless people needing free civil legal aid.

Even though we have such an extensive "track record" in providing services in our area, it continues to surprise me that many people do not know that civil legal aid exists or who provides civil legal aid. Many times, I hear staff members at Northwestern Legal Services ask the question of clients "How come you didn't call us earlier?" Many times the response is "I didn't know about legal aid."

So even after 38 years, we are still trying to ensure that all people know about Northwestern Legal Services.

How do we do this? We explore using different media and different methods of getting information to our communities. We have a newsletter, a cable access television show, and a radio show. Recently we have rented billboard advertising in hopes that more people would know about free legal aid. We have quite an extensive website at .

We also provide community legal education and outreach throughout our service area to the public and to human services providers who refer many people to our offices. We continue to try to expand the cases we take as well as the legal information and telephone advice we provide. Now, Northwestern Legal Services has more attorneys and paralegals on staff than in the last 15 years.

Please help us "get the word out." Please share this newsletter with anyone that you think is interested. Please tell your family, your neighbors and your friends about us so that anyone who is eligible for free legal aid will know about us. We appreciate your help.

Very truly yours,

Robert A. Oakley, Esq.
NWLS Executive Director

NWLS Board Member Pat Mickel an "Everyday Hero"

NWLS Board member Pat Mickel was chosen as the "Everyday Hero" in the Summer edition of "News & Views," a publication from the Housing Authority of the City of Erie.

Pat was honored for her many contributions to the Erie community, including her work as president and co-founder of the Erie Tenant Council, a city-wide organization that advocates on behalf of residents in more than 2,100 Erie Housing Authority units. She is also a member of the Section 8 self-sufficiency committee, and she helps out at the food pantry at the John Horan Garden Apartments.

At Northwestern Legal Services, Pat has served on the board of directors for more than 15 years, and she is currently the Lay Vice-President. She has also been very active in the Erie County Clients' Council, and the Clients' Council of Pennsylvania, advocacy groups that work with NWLS and other legal services programs in the state.

Social Security's Quick Disability Determination Extended Nationwide

On September 5, Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, announced that Social Security has issued a final regulation to extend the quick disability determination (QDD) process to all state disability determination services.

Under QDD, a predictive model analyzes specific elements of data within the electronic claims file to identify claims where there is a high potential that the claimant is disabled and where evidence of the person's allegations can be quickly and easily obtained.

"The quick disability determination has been very successful and efficient so far in New England and I am happy to say it will help people filing for disability benefits anywhere in the United States. This is a very important step we are taking at Social Security to improve our disability programs," Commissioner Astrue said.

Social Security currently receives more than 2.5 million new Social Security disability cases and more than 2.3 million Supplemental Security Income cases each year.

"The length of time many people wait for a disability decision is unacceptable," Commissioner Astrue said. "I am committed to a process that is as fair and speedy as possible. While there is no single magic bullet, with better systems, better business processes and better ways of fast tracking targeted cases, we can greatly improve the service we provide this vulnerable population."

The final regulation will be gradually implemented nationwide over the next several months.

For the complete press release about QDD or more information about Social Security's disability programs, go to .


Helps low-income people pay their heating bills with energy assistance grants

Although winter weather in northwestern Pennsylvania is difficult to predict, some experts forecast a definite chill to your pocketbook in the coming months.

The Energy Information Administration, a federal agency that supplies the short-erm energy and winter fuels outlook for the nation, expects the cost of heating your residence to rise in 2007 - 08.

On average, households heating primarily with natural gas are expected to spend an average of $78 (10 percent) more this winter in fuel expenditures, while households heating primarily with electricity can expect to pay an average of $32 (4 percent) more this winter than last.

For low-income residents of the Commonwealth, however, a program exits to help pay for the high cost of home heating this winter.


The Pennsylvania Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) helps low income people in the Commonwealth pay their heating bills through energy assistance grants.

LIHEAP applications are only accepted by welfare departments during a certain time of the year. This year all LIHEAP programs are scheduled to open on November 5, 2007. They are scheduled to close on March 21, 2008. The welfare department may extend or shorten the program dates depending upon availability of federal funds.

LIHEAP applications printed from the Internet and submitted to the county assistance offices will be processed beginning on November 5, 2007.

Cash/Crisis Grants

Cash grants are available to assist with your heating bills. You do not need an unpaid bill or to be in crisis situation to receive a cash grant, nor do you need to be on welfare to apply.

Both homeowners and renters who are responsible for their home heating and have a low or fixed income are eligible for the program. Clients living in subsidized housing are eligible for the cash grant only if they pay part or all of their primary heating source directly to a vendor.

If a person is eligible for LIHEAP, a utility/fuel payment will be sent directly to the fuel dealer, and the payment will be credited on the person's bill. In some cases, a check may be mailed to the recipient.

Additional money in the form of a crisis grant is available to individuals if they have an emergency situation and are in jeopardy of losing their heat. Emergency situations include:

* broken heating equipment or leaking lines that must be fixed
* lack of fuel
* termination of utility services
* danger of being without fuel or of having utility service terminated

To Apply for LIHEAP

To apply for LIHEAP, call or visit your local welfare office to set up an appointment. If you can't go to the welfare office because you are homebound, call the welfare office for help. Some of the information you will need when applying includes

* Names of people in the household
* Social Security numbers for all household members
* Proof of income for all household members
* Recent heating bill.

You can also go online for LIHEAP application forms at the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare web site at:

Your Rights

If you are not satisfied with the grant amount you receive or the way you are treated, you can request a hearing through the County Assistance Office. You can also contact Northwestern Legal Services to learn if you are eligible for representation by a law worker as you file your appeal.

LIHEAP Fast Facts

* Income eligibility for LIHEAP is set at 150 percent of the Federal Poverty Income Guidelines created by the Department of Health and Human Services.

* The average LIHEAP cash grant this year is expected to be about $250, however your household may be eligible to receive much more, depending on the size of your household, your income, and the type of fuel you use.

* The amount of the crisis grant also changes from year to year, but this year it is expected to be $300.

* A written notice explaining your eligibility and the amount of your cash grant that will be credited to your account should be sent 30 days after your cash grant application is received.

* An application for a crisis grant must be acted upon within 48 hours. If a life-threatening emergency exists, the department must act within 18 hours.

On the Web

If you are traveling the information superhighway to Northwestern Legal Services, be sure you turn on your computer speakers before you get there.

NWLS is proud to announce the launch of our new media blog - - where you can access information on a variety of civil legal topics in audio format. We've taken digital recordings of our bi-monthly radio show "Access to Justice" on WJET AM 1400 in Erie and made them available to listeners at the media site. The blog has been designed so that visitors can do the following:

* Listen to the recordings directly from the site
* Download the programs to your IPod or other MP3 player
* Subscribe to RSS feeds that download new shows as they are added to the site

In the future, we plan on adding video clips from our long-running TV series "Access to Justice" on Erie Cablevision (Channel 2) to the media blog. In this way we hope to expand our ability to bring information on civil legal topics to the communities we serve.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Consumer Protection Law and Landlord/Tenant Relations

By David Hull, NWLS Staff Attorney, Venango County

Legal aid attorneys who work in housing law understand a simple fact about the human condition -- there are good (and bad) landlords, just as there are good (and bad) tenants.

Sometimes, however, a low-income tenant may feel powerless against a landlord by virtue of the ownership, and the control, that the landlord exercises over the property that is the subject of the tenancy.

When things turn bad in the relationship, a landlord may refuse to refund a security deposit, or threaten the tenant with eviction or termination of utilities, or other forms of harassment.

A low-income tenant, however, is not powerless against these aggressive acts.

Consumer Protection Law

A tenant's legal remedies may lie in bringing an action against the landlord under the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (CPL).

This law generally prohibits any unfair or deceptive practices in consumer transactions.

The landlord/tenant relationship, by judicial decision, has been found to be a consumer transaction. If a court finds that the CPL is violated by a landlord, the tenant may have a claim for treble damages, that is, the tenant may recover triple of what they are owed by the landlord.

An Example

The following example may illustrate how the CPL works: Tenant A moves into an apartment rented by Landlord B, and gives the landlord a security deposit of $350 in addition to the first month's rent.

During the time of the tenancy, A pays his rent on time, does not damage the apartment and is otherwise a good tenant. One year later, A gives proper notice to vacate, requests his security deposit back and gives B his forwarding address in compliance with landlord/tenant law.

Landlord B, however, refuses to return the security deposit. The tenant requests in writing the reason for B's refusal, and B responds that there are damages to the apartment. Tenant A knows this to be untrue, and that B's damage estimates are inflated.

Tenant A can then bring a lawsuit against B under the CPL requesting the return of his security deposit and treble damages for B's unfair and deceptive conduct in unlawfully withholding A's security deposit.

Give NWLS a Call

This example, of course, is a simplified version of how the CPL works. Low-income renters are urged to call NWLS and consult with an attorney before proceeding with any litigation.

Nonetheless, the CPL can offer a powerful remedy for an otherwise powerless tenant.

If you are a low-income renter with a housing-related problem, you are urged to call the NWLS intake unit in Erie at 452-6957, or toll-free outside Erie at (800) 665-6957. An intake screener will help determine if you are eligible for services.

Remember, in order to receive free legal aid in a civil case, you must first give us a call.

Security Deposits

When you rent a house, apartment, or mobile home, you usually have to pay a security deposit to cover possible damage to the premises or rent that is still owed when you move. Pennsylvania law limits how much a landlord can charge.

First Year. During the first year you live in a place, your landlord can charge no more than two months' rent as a security deposit.

Second Year. After you have rented a place for more than one year, the landlord can charge no more than one month's rent as a security deposit. If your landlord charged more than that when you moved in, then your landlord must return everything above that amount.

For more information about housing law, visit

Executive Director's Desk

News Around Our Program

It has been quite eventful here at Northwestern Legal Services since the last newsletter was published. A number of changes have taken place that I believe make us an even better program.

New Staff Attorneys - By the time you are reading this, our program will have added three new staff attorneys to our roster. Elsewhere in this newsletter you will find a more detailed biography of the new attorneys:

Autumn Johnson began her job in our Farrell office on June 1.
Jeff Nicholson began work in our Franklin office on July 1.
Stacy Wallace will begin work in our Bradford office on July 16.

These are new attorneys being added to our staff - not replacing staff from those offices - so we are looking forward to increasing our services to our client community.

Billboard Advertising - Some readers may have seen some of our billboards around the area. On May 1, we began an outdoor advertising campaign in five counties in order to raise awareness of our program and our services.

Radio and Television Shows - Northwestern Legal Services now has a radio show to add to our media outreach. For nearly six years we have produced a television program on Erie Community Access Television (CATV - Channel 2) in Erie called "Access to Justice." We have now added a live half-hour radio show on WJET AM 1400 on the second and fourth Thursday of every month. The radio show, also titled "Access to Justice" features a live format that enable listeners to call-in with questions about the topic being discussed.

On June 13, the Chief Deputy Attorney General of Pennsylvania, Linda J. Williams, was our guest at the taping of our television show. She talked about consumer fraud and scams, especially those that target the elderly population. That show is currently running on Channel 2.

At the end of July, we hope to have as our guest, on both CATVand WJET AM 1400, the Pennsylvania Attorney General, Tom Corbett.

Yes, great things are happening here at Northwestern Legal Services.

Very truly yours,

Robert A. Oakley, Esq.
NWLS Executive Director

NWLS Welcomes New Staff Attorneys

The mission of Northwestern Legal Services is to assist low-income individuals and families by guiding them through the legal system using advocacy and education to obtain justice.

Three new staff attorneys will help NWLS perform its mission.

Autumn Johnson began work in the Farrell office (Mercer County) in June as a Martin Luther King Jr. Fellow. A graduate of Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania and Widener University School of Law, she completed internships with the American Civil Liberties Union and Neighborhood Legal Services in Pittsburgh prior to joining NWLS.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Fellowship was created by the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network in 2004 as a way to support new lawyers who are interested in public interest law.

Jeffrey Nicholson began work in the NWLS Franklin office (Venango County) in July. A graduate of Penn State Erie and the University of Dayton School of Law, he worked as a judicial law clerk for Crawford County Judge Anthony Vardaro prior to joining the NWLS staff.

Stacy Sorokes Wallace will begin work in the NWLS Bradford office (McKean County) in mid-July. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford and Duquesne University School of Law, she worked as a judicial law clerk for McKean County Judges John Cleland and John Yoder prior to her employment as a staff attorney at NWLS.

As part of their responsibilities at NWLS, all three attorneys will provide direct representation and counsel to low-income clients in a broad range of civil legal cases. NWLS law workers, both attorneys and paralegals, are also involved in community legal education and community outreach in the counties where they practice.

Behavioral HealthChoices Expands to Northwestern Pennsylvania

By Janice Meinert, MSW, Pennsylvania Health Law Project

Effective July 1, Erie, Crawford, Mercer and Venango Counties will join the rest of the Commonwealth in implementing the HealthChoices Behavioral Health Program.

This means all persons on Medical Assistance (MA) in these counties will receive behavioral health services through the managed care plan that contracted with the county mental health office.

The behavioral health plan for these four counties in northwestern Pennsylvania is Value Behavioral Health.

Automatic Enrollment

Individuals on MA in these four counties will not have to do anything to be enrolled in Value Behavioral Health; the enrollment will be automatic and will take effect on July 1.

Everyone currently on MA should receive a welcome letter from Value and a member handbook.

Members must receive mental health and drug & alcohol services from providers in the network of Value Behavioral Health unless Value approves otherwise. Members will have 60 days from July 1 to transition to an in-network provider.

Additional Services

There are additional services available under HealthChoices Behavioral Health than are covered under the former MA system. For example, HealthChoices covers such treatment options as crisis services, clozapine services, mobile therapy for adults and peer support specialist services.

In addition to the "standard" drug & alcohol services covered under the former MA plan, HealthChoices additionally covers intensive outpatient, partial hospitalization, halfway house, non-hospital detoxification and non-hospital rehabilitation

Choice of Providers

Members must be provided a choice of at least two providers for each in-plan ambulatory service within 30 minutes travel time in urban areas and within 60 minutes travel time in rural areas.

Access standards for inpatient and residential services is at least two providers for each in-plan service, one of which must be within 30 minutes travel time in urban areas and within 60 minutes travel time in rural areas.

Value's provider network must be able to provide face-to-face treatment intervention within one hour for emergencies, within 24 hours for urgent situations, and within seven days for routine and specialty services.

Right to Appeal

In HealthChoices, members also have an additional appeal right if Value denies mental health or drug & alcohol services that are prescribed.

Members can still file an appeal through the fair hearing process, but can also file a "grievance" with Value Behavioral Health when they deny services. Value's member handbook provides information on how to file a grievance.

Questions or Concerns

HealthChoices members in Erie, Crawford, Mercer and Venango who have questions or concerns should contact the Value Behavioral Health Member Services Line. In Erie, Value Member Services is 866-404-4560. For Crawford, Mercer and Venango, Value Member Services is 866-404-4561.

If you or someone you are working with is having a problem accessing mental health or drug & alcohol services, please contact the PA Health Law Project Helpline at 800-274-3258

Transportation Services Also Expanded

Access to services from the Medical Assistance Transportation Program (MATP) is also improved for Medical Assistance recipients in the HealthChoices. Behavioral Health Program.

Under the old system, MATP was only required to provide transportation or reimbursement for transportation to the closest MA provider.

In HealthChoices Behavioral Health, MATP is required to provide transportation or reimbursement for transportation to any network provider no matter the distance, including network providers in a county other than the county the member lives in.

The Pennsylvania Health Law Project has a Web site ( that offers information on a wide variety of issues affecting Medical Assistance and health care options for low-income residents of the Commonwealth. The Health Law Project also has a toll-free help line at 800-274-3258.

On the Web

Consumer fraud is a serious matter that victimizes many residents of the Commonwealth, especially vulnerable individuals such as senior citizens. Pennsylvania Attorney General, Tom Corbett, has developed a Website that offers a comprehensive overview of the many scams and fraudulent activities that target unsuspecting individuals, as well as tips to help you avoid being "taken" by confidence schemes and high pressure sales tactics.

Concerns about our health, and the health of our family and friends, are some of the most significant issues that we consider each day. The Pennsylvania Department of Health has collected a wide variety of information and links that address topics from prenatal nutrition to obtaining a death certificate of a family member. Everything from practical information on communicable diseases to public policy issues that confront residents of the Commonwealth are contained in this site.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Removing Legal Barriers to Employment

NWLS Project Assists Low-income Clients with Wide Range of Employment Issues

Suppose you applied for a job, and a background check indicated that you had a criminal history, but you had never been arrested or convicted of a crime.

Where would you turn for help?

The NWLS Employment Law Project is designed to help low-income clients with a wide range of civil legal issues pertaining to the workplace, including "criminal identity theft."

"Someone could have used your ID when they were arrested for a criminal offense, and this `identity theft' is now a barrier to your employment. As my client, I would work to correct the inaccurate record and help clear your name," explained Jennifer Krause, the NWLS staff attorney assigned to the project.

Barriers to Employment

Identity theft is just one roadblock that may inhibit your ability to get a job. Another example is the legal work needed to expunge an arrest record.

"A person accepted into Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) after a DUI offense may not realize that you need to process some legal paperwork with the district attorney's office in order to expunge the criminal record after the terms of the sentence have been completed. I can help a client with that process," Krause added.

Other legal issues handled by the Employment Law Project include a petition for an occupational limited license (OLL). The OLL is a driver's license issued to a person whose privileges have been, or will be, suspended. An OLL authorizes driving a designated motor vehicle, under certain conditions, when it is necessary for the driver's occupation, work, trade, medical treatment or study.

Job Preservation

The Employment Law Project not only handles civil legal issues that are barriers to employment, but also issues that pertain to job preservation as well.

For example, the Family and Medical Leave Act. allows "eligible" employees to take unpaid leave (up to 12 weeks) for the birth or adoption of a child, to care for a family member, or if the employee has a serious health condition.

"I can represent low-income clients who believe they were wrongfully denied leave under the Act, or who claim they suffered ill effects, such as job loss or reduction in pay, because they used the leave," Krause reported.

Getting or Preserving Income

The Employment Law Project also handles "traditional" legal issues such as unemployment compensation benefits. Low-income clients who have been denied benefits, or employers that are appealing the benefits awarded to clients, are typical examples of these cases.

"The project is also concerned with certain types of wage claims. Suppose you quit a job, and the employer failed to pay you for your last two weeks of work. That issue would be referred to the project for legal representation and counsel," Krause added.

Contact NWLS

If you have an employment-related problem, you are urged to call the NWLS intake unit in Erie at 452-6957, or toll-free outside Erie at (800) 665-6957. An intake screener will help determine if you are eligible for services under the Employment Law Project.

NWLS Public Benefits Project Can Help

Barriers to employment for low-income clients are often clothed in very basic needs.

The NWLS Public Benefits Project is designed to help low-income clients move toward gainful employment by ensuring they get all of the government benefits they are entitled to receive. Individuals on TANF enrolled in an education or training program, for example, may be eligible to receive a clothing allowance of up to $150.

Other supportive services for education and training include child care, transportation reimbursement, union dues, and even a car purchase or car repair allowance.

Individuals on TANF or general assistance who would like to learn more about special allowances are urged to call Jeannine Lawton-Knepper, NWLS public benefits specialist, at 452-6949, ext. 122, or toll-free at (800) 753-5704. ext. 122.

Executive Director's Desk

When people think of the work legal aid does, they inevitably think of the legal cases where our legal staff provides representation to our clients. And we certainly provide that help. In fact in 2006, we provided legal help that assisted almost 11,000 people.

This assistance takes many forms: from simple advice to pro se assistance to representation at hearings and trials to appealing cases. We provided help in many areas such as family law, housing, public benefits, consumer issues, education issues and health care problems. But Northwestern Legal Services provides the community so much more.

Our program provides outreach into the community along with community legal education. We believe that if people know their rights they are better equipped to help themselves and not get into any legal trouble. We publish a newsletter and have a community access television show - both titled "Access to Justice." We have a web site that gives a lot of information to people who access it and provides links to other important web sites. We print many different brochures on legal issues and distribute them around the community. All of these things provide needed information for people so that they can avoid legal troubles.

I would be remiss if I did not point out the dedication of our volunteer board of directors which helps this program move toward its goals to accomplish our mission. Our staff is also very dedicated and provides the day-to-day work assisting our community. Lastly, I must applaud our community for its support without which we could not accomplish the tasks that give us purpose and moves us toward achieving our goals and mission.

Very truly yours,

Robert A. Oakley, Esq.
NWLS Executive Director

New Rules on Bank Account Garnishments

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recently enacted new Rules of Civil Procedure that will protect exempt resources, such as social security, from being garnished or attached.

The new rules protect funds that are "on deposit in a bank or other financial institution in an account in which funds are deposited electronically on a recurring basis and are identified as funds which upon deposit are exempt from attachment."

The ruling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court brings the Commonwealth into compliance with federal laws which provide that funds disbursed under federal programs are not subject to execution, levy, attachment, garnishment, or other legal process, or to the operation of any bankruptcy or insolvency law.

The new rules were the result of a collaborative effort from a group of legal aid advocates from around the state. The group included law workers from Northwestern Legal Services, MidPenn Legal Services, North Penn Legal Services, Neighborhood Legal Services Association, Community Legal Services, Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania, and the Community Justice Project.

You can view the new rules at

PA Streamlines Access to Food Stamps for Seniors and Adults with Disabilities

Pennsylvania senior citizens and adults with disabilities may now apply for food stamps and supplemental security income (SSI) simultaneously.

Launched in January 2007, Pennsylvania's Combined Application Project (PA CAP) has enabled over 34,000 seniors and adults with disabilities to be enrolled automatically for benefits. The project is a joint effort involving the Department of Public Welfare, the Social Security Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Services division.

"With this new benefit program we are continuing our commitment to breaking down the barriers to self-sufficiency and helping people afford items that can significantly improve their quality of life," said DPW Secretary Estelle Richman.

Through a special five-year demonstration project, SSI recipients who live alone or who purchase and prepare meals separately from other household members will be eligible for the new program.

Eligible Pennsylvanians will receive a green ACCESS card in the mail, which may be used at supermarkets and other retail food stores. Benefits will be administered based on the individual's shelter costs and types of income.

The Department of Public Welfare administers the food stamps program through county assistance offices across the Commonwealth.

This article is an edited version of a press release from Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare (DPW). To see the release in its entirety, or for more information about Pennsylvania's food stamp benefit, visit the DPW Website at .

Layoffs in Potter County Trigger Team Response

It was devastating news for the residents of Potter County and the region.

More than 400 workers employed at the Adelphia Communications call center located in Coudersport were laid-off in February. The layoffs were announced by Time Warner Cable in December after the company (along with Comcast Corporation) acquired parts of the now-defunct Adelphia.

The call center in rural Potter County provided technical assistance and customer support for Adelphia's cable and Internet subscribers.

With more layoffs expected in the months ahead, hundreds of former call center employees, and other personnel, are now the people in need of help.

Rapid Response

While government agencies and social service organizations cannot provide an "easy fix" when massive layoffs occur, there are clearly actions that can be taken to assist these individuals and their families.

The two groups most involved with this effort in Potter County are the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry's Rapid Response Unit, and CareerLink.

Rapid Response is an early intervention service that assists workers and employers affected by layoffs, plant closures, or natural disasters. It provides access to the state's CareerLink system of resources and information to help transition workers into reemployment.

Interviews are being held at the CareerLink center in Coudersport with out-of-work individuals to help determine their specific needs, and a job fair is being planned for the region in the near future.

Much of what they hope to accomplish is to provide awareness of government benefits these displaced workers are entitled to receive, and to assist with the search for a new job.

Legal Aid May Help

Although layoffs create serious problems for the unemployed on many different levels, civil legal issues will undoubtedly be a concern for some in the months ahead

Northwestern Legal Services may be able to assist low-income individuals and their families in Potter, McKean and Cameron Counties affected by the layoffs at Adelphia.

One civil legal issue that may arise concerns housing. Unemployed workers who rent may have questions about their leases, and how to deal with problems as they try to make ends meet or relocate to a new community.

Folks who have a mortgage on their home may face the possibility of foreclosure, and the need to apply for the Homeowners' Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program (HEMAP).

HEMAP is a Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency program that provides short-term, temporary funding to cure loan delinquencies. The program can make mortgage payments to lenders on behalf of qualifying homeowners for up to 24 months.

Other civil legal issues facing displaced workers can include child support, utility assistance, and applications for benefits such as food stamps.

Give Us A Call

Northwestern Legal Services provides free legal aid to low-income clients in a broad range of civil legal cases.

Applications for service are made by calling the NWLS central intake unit toll free at (800) 665-6957 or in Erie at 452-6957. Intake screeners will determine if you meet eligibility requirements for the services we provide.

The only way you will know if we can help is if you give us a call.

Also check out the NWLS Website at for more information.