After filling out an eligibility survey incorrectly, not getting the survey or ignoring it, low-income Mainers are being bounced from a federal discount phone service program — and being back-billed for past charges.
Wayne Jortner, senior counsel at the Maine Public Advocate's Office, has helped a dozen people in the past two months get back on the Lifeline program.
"Some of them are quite upset because they're getting bills that are way more than they can afford," Jortner said Friday. "It's quite distressing, especially for those that rely on a landline phone and don't have any alternatives."
The Federal Communications Commission underwrites the discount and last year required recertification for the first time after concerns about household double-dipping, Public Advocate Richard Davies said.
Prior to that, people qualified for Lifeline, which cuts the cost of basic phone service roughly in half, by being enrolled in a low-income program such as food stamps.
"There really was not enough advance warning," Davies said. "It caught a lot of people by surprise."
Most of the calls to his office have come from FairPoint Communications customers. Some thought the new application was junk mail. Some accidentally left a space blank; others made minor mistakes.
"There wasn't any requirement that the company tell the applicant the reason why they had not been recertified," Davies said. "In almost every case that our folks have worked on, we've been able to get them to reverse that decision, put people back on."
A FairPoint spokeswoman said the company sent new applications to 47,000 Lifeline customers to comply with the FCC rules. She didn't know the number that had been dropped or had been dropped and then returned to the program.
"(When people still qualify), the fix is pretty fast," Jortner said. "It's just not everybody knows to come to my office."
He's heard that Maine's Area Agencies on Aging have logged between 150 and 200 complaints from abruptly dropped seniors.
One Lewiston man who declined to give his name said he'd been on the Lifeline program for years. Last month, his phone bill jumped from $7 to $24, with an additional $50 charge to recapture the discount from the past three months.
When he called FairPoint, he was told he didn't return a form last fall. He didn't remember receiving one. Neither did his sister. They were both dropped from Lifeline.
"We live month to month on a little, tiny Social Security check," he said. "For people that qualify, it means we're poor. We can't afford to be back-billed."