Residential Energy Assistance:

Effectiveness of Demonstration Program as Yet Undetermined

GAO-01-723: Published: Aug 17, 2001. Publicly Released: Aug 17, 2001.

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Rising prices for natural gas, electricity, and other fuels have made it even harder for low-income families to pay their utility bills. By the end of fiscal year 2000, the Office of Community Services had awarded $30 million in Residential Energy Assistance Challenge Option (REACH) program grants to 24 states and 12 tribal organizations to fund 54 separate projects to help meet the home energy (heating and cooling) needs of low-income households. These grants ranged from $50,000 to $1.6 million. Most of the 54 REACH projects have educated low-income clients about home energy efficiency through group workshops or on individual home visits. Many REACH projects have involved energy-related repairs to homes and budget counseling, and three state REACH projects are developing consumer cooperatives to purchase electricity or bulk fuels, such as heating oil. However, some REACH projects have included social services not directly related to meeting home energy needs. The legislation authorizing REACH identifies the following three performance goals for individual REACH projects, (1) reduce the energy costs of participating households, (2) increase the regularity of home energy bill payments, and (3) increase energy suppliers' contributions to reduce eligible households' energy burden. Of the six project evaluations completed by states as of May 2001, only one project's design and implementation allowed statistically valid conclusions to be made about the effect of project services on participant energy use. The five other state project evaluations had analytical problems and other shortcomings that limited their usefulness in assessing project results. The Department of Health and Human Services has not yet developed a comprehensive plan for how it can best communicate summary information on best practices and lessons learned from the REACH program.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: With HHS developing information for performance reporting and obtaining additional project evaluations, Congress may want to consider requiring HHS to report on REACH program effectiveness and project results in several years, after the projects funded in the first three years of the program have completed their evaluations by the end of 2002. Once HHS has reported, Congress may also wish to consider whether the REACH program should continue indefinitely or whether the program should have an end date after a sufficient number of demonstration projects.

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress has not taken action on this recommendation.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure that the results of REACH projects are effectively communicated to the government agencies and private organizations involved in addressing low-income households' energy needs, the Secretary of HHS should direct the Office of Community Services to develop a communication plan for the REACH program describing intended audiences, types of information to be communicated, communication methods appropriate to the intended audiences, and the funding needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency completed action on this recommendation by convening a strategic planning workgroup to address development of a communication plan.

    Recommendation: To better target the use of the limited resources of the Residential Energy Assistance Challenge Option (REACH) program and provide for reporting on the program performance, the Secretary of HHS should direct the Administration for Children and Families and its Office of Community Services to ensure that REACH funds are used for activities directly related to the home energy (heating and cooling) needs of low-income households.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency completed action on this recommendation by adding statements to its fiscal year 2002 Program Announcement reiterating the requirement that program fund expenditures by grantees must be energy related.

    Recommendation: To better target the use of the limited resources of the Residential Energy Assistance Challenge Option (REACH) program and provide for reporting on program performance, the Secretary of HHS should direct the Administration for Children and Families and its Office of Community Services to address the relationship between the REACH and Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) programs in its performance plan.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency completed action on this recommendation by adding references to the REACH program in the LIHEAP 2004 GPRA Plan.

    Recommendation: To better target the use of the limited resources of the Residential Energy Assistance Challenge Option (REACH) program and provide for reporting on program performance, the Secretary of HHS should direct the Administration for Children and Families and its Office of Community Services to develop program performance goals for REACH that are objective, measurable, and quantifiable.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: GAO has not been able to identify any agency action to implement this recommendation.

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