HARRISBURG Battle brewing over phone service
Lawmakers will probably negotiate how the program works this spring.
HARRISBURG (AP) -- As state legislators consider updating a law governing telephone and high-speed Internet service, they also are debating whether low-income Pennsylvanians should automatically be enrolled in a state and federal program that provides a discount on their service.
About 1 million Pennsylvania households are eligible for the Lifeline Assistance Program, but only 110,000 were actually enrolled in December 2002 -- a big reason why enrollment should be automatic, said Irwin "Sonny" Popowsky, a state consumer advocate who specializes in utility issues.
Telephone companies oppose automatic enrollment, saying that it will create administrative problems and intrude on people's privacy. Instead, they favor actions to step up voluntary enrollment.
How the program works likely will be negotiated by lawmakers this spring as part of a larger bill updating a 1993 law governing telephone and high-speed Internet services -- known as Chapter 30 of the public utility code.
A spokesman for Gov. Ed Rendell said that the Democrat's administration is "for the time being" favoring making enrollment automatic.
A senior aide to House Democrats said that automatic enrollment in Lifeline will be one of their top three issues in negotiating a new Chapter 30 law.
"Automatic enrollment is one of those issues we're going to be very aggressive in pushing," said Mike Manzo, chief of staff to the House Democratic leader, H. William DeWeese.
Senate Republicans want to examine both sides of the issue before taking a stance, a senior aide said.
Most of those who are eligible for low-income assistance programs -- such as home-heating subsidies, welfare-to-work programs, or SSI -- are automatically eligible for discounts of as much as $7.84. For the lowest-income of Verizon's customers, the discount is $11.59.
Many people eligible for Lifeline are simply not aware of the benefit, said Harry Geller, whose organization, the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project, works to improve utility services to low-income customers.
The money in the program comes from the "universal service" line item on telephone customers' bills. It is collected by the Federal Communications Commission and redistributed to telephone companies to subsidize the $7.84 discount they offer. As part of a voluntary program, Verizon buttresses the federal discount with a separate assessment on its customers that is then distributed as an extra $3.75 discount to its lowest-income customers who are enrolled.
Of the four Chapter 30 bills in the Legislature, three include automatic enrollment and one does not. The latter, sponsored by Rep. William F. Adolph Jr., R-Delaware, is supported by the telephone companies and would require them to increase efforts to bring low-income customers into Lifeline.
Adolph said he would not oppose automatic enrollment, but that it would result in extra costs for the telephone companies and possibly the state.
Also, people enrolled in a public-assistance program might object to the automatic transmission of their identity to their local telephone company, he said.
Steve Samara, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Telephone Association, said stepped-up outreach would be more effective in increasing the number of enrollees.
If enrollment is automatic, the telephone companies could get lists of eligible people that are outdated or contain any number of inaccuracies, giving the industry a logistical and administrative nightmare, Samara said.
"Our biggest concern is will automatic enrollment work?" Samara said. "It's not as simple as getting a list and adding people to the rolls."