Death of woman on electric-powered oxygen machine might have been preventable

Pennsylvanians with serious medical conditions can get a reprieve from power shutoff.

Cherri Gregg
July 09, 2018 - 8:04 pm

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A North Jersey woman who used an electric-powered oxygen tank to breathe, died of heart failure Thursday just hours after PSE&G cut off her electricity. A nonprofit lawyer in Philadelphia says that this situation could have been prevented in Pennsylvania.

The power company said it notified 68-year-old Linda Daniels 15 times about the imminent cutoff. Her family told the Associated Press that Daniels, a hospice patient, made a $500 payment on the overdue bill days before she died. 

"It could have been prevented in a couple different ways," said Joline Price, a staff attorney who is part of the energy unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia

She said laws on utility cutoff vary from state to state. In Pennsylvania, residents with serious medical conditions have the right to a reprieve from shutoff, but they must inform the utility of their condition and back it up in writing from a medical professional. 

"It can be signed by a doctor, a nurse practitioner or physician's assistant," Price added.

Similarly, under New Jersey Law, a utility may not shut off residential service if the customer or someone in the household has a valid medical condition. PSE&G said it has no record of Daniels' medical condition. 

According to a statement issued by PSE&G on July 9, Daniels was severely in arrears, and the company made at least 26 attempts to notify her since January of 2018, including two visits to the residence prior to the disconnection.
 
A spokesperson for PSE&G wrote in an email that there will be a complete investigation into the incident. The company urges “customers who are having trouble paying their bills, and especially those with a medical condition, to immediately contact PSE&G.”

A medical certificate will temporarily prevent Pennsylvania companies like PECO and PGW from shutting off utilities for a 30-day period. It can be renewed three times for a total reprieve of 90 days. Price said if the customer pays their bill in full, they can get a reprieve that lasts as long as their illness.

"We do encourage people as soon as they find that they have a problem to contact PECO early on," noted PECO spokesperson Afia Ohene-Rempong. "Explain as much as you can in as much detail about the situation in your home so that you can be referred to the correct person here to prevent this from happening."

That information includes the nature of the illness, how long it continues and the needs as it relates to energy usage. She said customers should not wait until cutoff or pending cutoff to make payment arrangements — earlier communication is key.  

"This story is really, really heartbreaking," Ohene-Rempong said, noting that protocol requires multiple efforts to reach a customer before a shutoff.

Communications regarding an impending shutoff begin at least 10 days in advance. She added that PECO also calls or visits in person 72 hours before shutoff. 

Community Legal Services said its representatives are also available to help.

"If your bills are piling up, pay attention," Price continued. "People have many more rights before shutoff than after. Come to CLS and we can help you."