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Arizona Regulators Ban Some Service Shutoffs After a Customer Died

Regulators in Arizona have declared a moratorium until October 15 on electricity shutoffs for nonpayment of bills and asked the state’s largest utility for information on claims filed against it by families of customers who died during the past decade after their power was shut off.

A report by news site azcentral.com said that Arizona Public Service Co. told regulators it has been sued twice in the last decade when customers died after their power was cut because they didn't pay their bills.

One woman whose power was cut in June 2018 was found dead in her home in July. Another woman was found dead in December 2011 after APS cut her power in November of that year, the news site said, quoting a letter APS filed with the Arizona Corporation Commission.

APS said the company settled with the victims' estates in both cases but didn't say for how much.

"It is important to note that in each case there are other circumstances and contributing factors that likely impacted the customer's health; and it is typically unknown, and often unknowable, what role — if any — disconnection of electric service played," APS Vice President of Regulation Barbara Lockwood reportedly said in the letter.

The regulatory scrutiny comes after a fatality was reported in a Phoenix suburb last fall when APS cut off power to 72-year-old Stephanie Pullman, who had been behind on her bills for five months.

A Maricopa County medical examiner's report on Pullman said she died of heart disease and that heat exposure and diabetes contributed to her death, the news site said.

The disclosures show that two people died in the first full year after APS raised rates in August 2017, which prompted complaints from customers and raised the company's disconnections to 110,029 for 2018.

That compared with about 56,000 disconnections in 2017, when the company paused shutoffs for two months, and about 88,000 in 2016 before the rate hike.

News of Pullman's death prompted the Arizona Corporation Commission to declare in June an emergency moratorium on electric companies shutting off customers for nonpayment until October 15.

Daniel Froetscher, executive vice president of operations, was quoted as saying that he was unaware of any claims against the company in Pullman's death. He said the company disputed the allegations in past claims even though it paid settlements.

Pullman's death also prompted several questions from regulators.

Commissioner Lea Márquez Peterson on June 18 asked APS for information regarding customers who have been hurt or killed after having their power shut off.

"In contemplating the disconnection numbers more closely over the last several days, it had occurred to me how unusual it seems that, out of 110,029 customer disconnections ... only one resulted in a medically related or otherwise life-threatening incident," Márquez Peterson said in her letter to the docket established to review the issue.

Márquez Peterson reportedly said she was saddened to learn that two people had died in the first year after the rates were raised.

"I'm concerned about how the customer service was handled, or their procedures were handled, in terms of these folks," she said. "I'm glad that we're doing further investigation."

Arizona utility regulators are reviewing possible changes for the rules for all regulated utilities in the state regarding when they can cut service to people who don't pay. 

One consumer advocate reportedly said that the APS letter only addressed incidents that included legal action or were made public by news reports.

"Heat kills more people than any other weather-related event," the advocate reportedly said. "Other states have utility shut off protections because it's a public health issue."

DW Keefer's picture

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