Saturday, June 25, 2005

Lack of Juice Kills Lakeland Man

On the front page of my local paper was one of those administrative tragedies. Ultimately "administrative" is a nice way to say "preventable." A man brought his terminally ill father home to live with him so he would not have to spend his remaining time on this earth in a nursing home. (He had recently been transferred from hospice care at home to a nursing home due to his wife's ill health.) The 86-year-old patient had emphysema. But not for long. The very next day the local utility cut off electricity to the house because the owner was behind on his bills. That rendered the man's oxygen machine useless. He soon died, courtesy of the local electric company. Well that's one way to show 'em! I"ll be the man's son ran right out and paid his electric bill as soon as he got off the phone with the undertaker. After all, you can't have people back to the house after a wake if you've got no electricity. The finger foods won't hold up! Now it's true the man was terminally ill, thus wouldn't have lived all that much longer anyway. But at the same time, the action of the electric company seemed, well, abrupt. Wouldn't you rather die at God's discretion rather than the electric company's? I'd sooner take my chances with St. Peter as the bouncer checking identification at the Pearly Gates. I wouldn't want to wait for the electric company to buzz me in. Now I don't want to be too hard on the electric company. (To the point of not naming them publicly even though everyone in town knows who the culprit is.) Namely because they supply MY electricity, and I'd hate for an administrative "whoopsie" to leave me without air conditioning during the hottest part of the summer. The utility company is a monopoly. Sort of like the sun. You can complain about it, but you are also completely dependent on it. So no matter how much moaning we do about the rates or the weather, we still want our energy-producing entity to be there the next day doing its job. Still, I can't help but play Utility Lineman's Advocate in this situation. And for all I know the electric company may have tried all these avenues and cut off the electricity as a last resort. (It was certainly the 86-year-old man's Last Resort, anyway.) Here are some non-fatal ideas on how to handle the billing problem: 1) Send a registered letter. Put in PLAIN ENGLISH (not Bureaucratese) the fact that if a payment is not made, then by such and such a date the electric will be turned off. Offer instructions on how a payment plan may be worked out. Emphasize that making SOME payment may forestall drastic measures. 2) Call up the owner. Explain that workers will be coming out THIS WEEK to turn off the electricity if a payment is not made. Mention the payment plan idea. If you get an answering machine, label the message as being EXTREMELY URGENT. 3) Have the workers knock on the door before turning off the electricity. Explain to the homeowner or door answerer that the electricity is about to be shut off. Tell them the job will begin in half an hour so they may have time to put their food in coolers, or call 911 if they happen to have medical issues. Simple! After three major hurricanes last year, surely no one can claim to be ignorant of the fact that people with plug-in medical devices had to make arrangements in case of a power outage. Isn't this taught in Turning Off the Electricity 101? But sometimes utilities can be impervious to bad publicity, since it isn't like they can be fired, jailed or ostracized. You can badmouth the sun or the electric company all you want, and it doesn't really have an effect. Perhaps they will be sending a sympathy card with their next bill. Who knows, maybe they will even spring for flowers. There's never enough time to knock on the customer's door. But plenty of time to attend a funeral service.

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