P.J. McCusker, 71, who relies on medical equipment to manage respiratory issues, lost her power around noon Thursday because she had an overdue bill of $117. Her power wasn’t restored until Friday at 7:45 a.m. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A 71-year-old Bowdoin woman had her electric service shut off this week for non-payment of a bill, even though that meant she could not use medical equipment needed to help treat her bronchitis.

P.J. McCusker said electricity was cut off to her mobile home around noon on Thursday and not restored until Friday morning, despite calls to Central Maine Power and an assurance that power would be restored early Thursday evening.

McCusker said she owed CMP $117.08 on a bill she received in early September. The bill was due on Sept. 24, she said, but she waited to send a check until her monthly Social Security check of $700 – her only income – was deposited on Oct. 3.

A CMP customer service worker she spoke to Thursday afternoon told her that the check hadn’t arrived and the utility couldn’t do anything about restoring her electric service until it was received. Another customer service rep that she contacted later in the day said service would be restored within 20 minutes, but her power wasn’t turned back on until about 7:45 a.m. Friday, she said.

Under Maine law, power is not supposed to be disconnected to a household with an elderly person in it or someone who needs electricity to run medical equipment from Nov. 15 through April 15. McCusker said she uses a nebulizer to inhale medicine to treat her bronchitis. McCusker said there’s a sticker on her electric meter indicating power is not supposed to be cut off over billing issues.

CMP’s customer service procedures have been under fire for months, and a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigation found that CMP mismanaged the rollout of a new billing system in the fall of 2017, resulting in tens of thousands of customers getting sharply higher bills. The utility said a price increase by an electricity supplier and unusually cold weather were to blame for the increased bills.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission is investigating the company’s customer service practices as it weighs a rate increase for the utility.

McCusker said her trailer got cold overnight and the lack of light made it difficult to move around. In addition to chronic bronchitis, she has a leg and back condition that makes it difficult to walk, she said.

“It was a rough night. I never thought they’d shut me off for $117,” McCusker said. “It’s not necessary, for $117, to shut me off. That’s what I think.”

A friend of McCusker’s contacted state Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, for help. Berry said he sent information to the PUC’s consumer assistant division, and asked it to look into the matter. Berry said he didn’t contact CMP because disconnections happen too often and the utility shouldn’t be addressing them on an individual basis.

“This is the tip of a very large, very cold iceberg,” said Berry. “CMP’s response to this is absolutely heartless. It’s a miracle that no one has died yet” because their electricity was shut off.

Berry wants the state to explore converting CMP to a consumer-owned utility. It’s currently owned by Avangrid, the U.S. subsidiary of Spain-based Iberdrola, a multinational electric utility.

“The profit motive (of CMP) is clearly part of the problem,” he said.

A spokesman for CMP said the company doesn’t accept the accounts of the McCusker case as reported, but he declined to be more specific on her situation, citing confidentiality rules.

Michael Jamison, manager of corporate relations for Avangrid, also said that CMP “sympathizes with our customers anytime service is disconnected for credit reasons.”

He said that nebulizers, along with C-PAP machines and electric chairs or beds, don’t qualify as life-sustaining equipment under the company’s guidelines.

“We have processes and procedures for identifying and tracking” customers with a need for equipment that qualifies as life-sustaining so their service isn’t cut off, Jamison said.

CMP has had about 16,000 disconnections this year, representing about 2.5% of the company’s customers, he said.

This story was updated at 10 a.m. on Oct. 15 to clarify the span of time over which electricity service cannot be disconnected.


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