How A Heat Wave Becomes Life-Threatening

With scorching temperatures and threatening brush fires, there’s renewed conversation on heat and health in California. But there isn’t enough attention on the health consequences for families who face a power shutoff.

For patients requiring special equipment or refrigerated medications, access to electricity can become a matter of life or death. They should be enrolled in the Medical Baseline discount program to help reduce power bills. But last year, there were more than 860,000 shutoffs, and thousands were Medical Baseline customers.

We have a public health imperative to protect these people. This is precisely what Senate Bill 598 seeks to do. Introduced by Sen. Ben Hueso, a San Diego Democrat, and supported by housing, public health and consumer advocates, the bill would ban shutoffs for low-income families with someone on life support equipment, under home hospice care or needing heat or cooling to survive a life-threatening illness.

Without air conditioning, individuals with limited mobility must sweat it out in their homes, unable to reach community cooling centers. Other patients need refrigerated food or medications such as insulin. The risk of food poisoning, dehydration and heat stroke is worsened.

 Heat and air pollution from forest fires can aggravate chronic illnesses such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. An asthma hospitalization in California averages more than $400, and nearly half of the 1.4 million children with asthma rely on Medi-Cal or other public insurance programs. Seniors eligible for Medicare make up one-third of all hospitalizations for heat-related illnesses, averaging more than $1,500 per hospitalization.

The question is not whether or not to support the common-sense bill, but rather, why have we failed to protect these families in the past?

Justine Marcus is a policy fellow at The Utility Reform Network and can be contacted at jmarcus@turn.org