A man with mental health issues is threatened with disconnection because of $2,494 in electricity arrears (March 2015)

Trouble paying a bill
Case Number 2014/53100
Outcome Conciliation

The Issue

After several failed payment plans and an overdue balance of $2,494 on his electricity bill, Mr D received an imminent disconnection notice from his retailer. A mental health support worker acting on his behalf, contacted EWOV and told us his client thought he had to pay $50 per fortnight and didn't realise the amount had increased to $54 per fortnight. He said the retailer offered an increased payment plan of $81 per fortnight, with a $500 credit incentive if the plan was maintained for two years. However, he advised that his client was unable to pay that much.

In order to resolve the matter, Mr D's representative requested the retailer consider a $40 per fortnight payment plan and ongoing hardship assistance. EWOV raised an Assisted Referral, and at the retailers request, the matter was escalated to an Investigation. While the Investigation was underway, EWOV requested that Mr. D continue to make fortnightly payments of $40, in order to address his ongoing usage.

The Investigation

The retailer told us that it would not accept the proposed payment plan of $40 per fortnight because Mr D's average fortnightly usage was $45, and multiple payment plans had failed in the past. The retailer adjusted its previous payment plan offer to $70 per fortnight which would cover usage and start repaying the outstanding balance. It also acknowledged that the appropriate concessions had not been applied on several occasions over a long period of time, and therefore applied a credit of $901, bringing the outstanding balance to  $1,592.

Mr D's representative told us his client was suffering from a mental illness that often prevented him from leaving the house, making it difficult to pay his bills. He also said that Mr D was concerned that his electricity usage was being reported as higher than it should be and that his retailer had not completed the energy audit he requested. EWOV requested Mr D's complete usage data from the retailer, and this data reflected seasonal patterns that were not unusually high - with an average daily usage of 20kWh per day.

EWOV's next steps were to conduct a financial assessment, an energy audit and a Good Industry Practice assessment.

The financial assessment noted that Mr D was on a pension with over 50% of his income going on his mortgage, and his financial position was unlikely to change in the future. The assessor recommended a payment plan of $40 per fortnight, increasing to $45 after several months to meet consumption, as well providing Mr D with energy efficiency advice.

EWOV's Technical Consultant conducted an energy audit and reviewed Mr D's consumption data. He noted that the general consumption was low, but based on Mr D's feedback, the two biggest contributors to his bills were the television (which ran about eight hours per day) and the electric heater (which ran all night during winter). The technician recommended that Mr D use a thermostat on the heater and reduce its operating times.

We also contacted three other energy retailers in order to conduct a Good Industry Practice assessment, asking them what they would do in order to resolve the issue. Two of the retailers responded and both said they would accept a payment plan of $50 per fortnight. One of the retailers said that if disconnection notices and suitable hardship support were offered earlier, the arrears may not have been as large. One of the retailers also said they would honor the offer of a $500 incentive credit if Mr D was able to stick to a payment plan for two years.

The Outcome

Because Mr D had been generally successful at making payments of $50 per fortnight in the past, he and his representative offered to reestablish this payment plan. The representative also said he would ensure that Mr D engaged with the payment plan, and would set up Centrepay payments to ensure that his client was able to meet the payment schedule.

The retailer agreed to a temporary payment plan of $50 per fortnight, with quarterly reviews to discuss Mr D's usage and payments. In addition, the retailer credited Mr D's account $500 as a one-off customer service gesture, and would provide a further credit of $50 per month provided Mr D adhered to the payment plan.

The retailer said Mr D would receive ongoing support under its hardship program, as well as energy efficiency advice, a direct contact in the hardship team, and an assessment of whether Mr D was eligible for additional concessions.

Mr D and his support worker were satisfied and the case was closed.

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