WASHINGTON — Utility customers racked up record debt even as the federal home energy assistance program served more than 7 million families, an all-time high, in the last fiscal year, underscoring the need for more funding, the National Energy Assistance Directors Association said Tuesday.

Congress must act to provide additional funding to bring heating and cooling assistance to last year’s levels to avoid forcing states to cut 1.5 million families from the program, said Mark Wolfe, the group’s executive director.

Last year, Congress approved an additional $2 billion, bringing total spending to $6.1 billion, but lawmakers have yet to add extra funding in the fiscal year that began in October even with energy prices higher than before the pandemic, temperatures whiplashing between extremes, and more people seeking assistance, Wolfe said.

For now, funding is tied up in the appropriations process as Congress sorts out details after reaching an agreement to keep the government funded through March.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who is vice chair of the Appropriations Committee, said Tuesday that she’s committed to working with senators across aisle “to include the highest level of funding possible” for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Maine was awarded more than $38 million in funding for its assistance program for 2024.

The need for funding is reflected in the number of people who are behind on utility payments.

More than one out of six households are behind on their energy bills, Wolfe said. That’s consistent with U.S. Census Bureau data indicating 17.3% of households were unable to pay energy bills at least once during the last 12 months, he said.

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