By Pat Loeb

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – The Pennsylvania Welfare Department is working on a backlog of applications for Low Income Home Energy Assistance. The program closes at the end of the month, but thousands of people are still waiting for help.

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The program, known as LIHEAP, provides money for low income residents who can’t pay heating bills and the state and utility companies are still encouraging people to apply.

But PGW and PECO say there’s a backlog of nearly 50,000 applications, just in the Philadelphia area. This, even though, welfare department officials say, total applications are down by nearly 80,000 statewide.

The cause of the backlog is not clear, but PGW spokesman Barry O’Sullivan says, just as the state has tightened income tests for food stamps and Medicaid, LIHEAP applications are under scrutiny. “There are ongoing efforts to look more closely at applications that are coming in.”

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A welfare department spokeswoman says she doesn’t know the cause of the backlog, but that the department has added staff to clear it up.

But, Harry Geller of the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project is concerned about how long it will take. He notes utilities are prohibited from turning the heat off during the winter, but that moratorium expires April first. “These households that are behind in their bills, even though they’re eligible for grants, face the possibility of being shut off.”

Geller says he doesn’t know the reason for the backlog but he says the state is scrutinizing applications more closely– just as it is for food stamps and Medicaid– to prevent fraud, though he adds, “We don’t believe there has been a lot of fraud in the LIHEAP program.”

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LIHEAP is fully funded by the federal government. Funds were cut this year but the department says applications were down, too, and there is money left in the fund.