Less than three weeks before San Diego Gas & Electric says it could implement a plan to cut power to 60,000 back country customers, the company still has not spoken with roughly 200 of those whose medical conditions may pose a special risk if electricity is lost.
Those special needs customers include residents with life-threatening illnesses, those on medical devices like oxygen concentrators or elderly who need to remain in temperature-controlled environments.
In presenting its shutoff plan publicly and to the state’s Public Utilities Commission, SDG&E said it would directly contact each of the more than 900 customers in the affected East County regions who qualify for special rates because their conditions require constant electricity use. Five-hundred-ninety of those “medical baseline” rate customers use life-support devices.
Conversations with backcountry residents over the last two days, however, revealed that at least some special needs customers remain unaware of the shutoff plan or its impending implementation. Those include both medical baseline customers the company has committed to contact, and care providers who, because they do not receive reduced rates, have not been directly targeted.
When questioned, SDG&E spokeswoman Stephanie Donovan said the company had been unsuccessful in speaking with 206 of the 900 medical baseline customers. Of those customers, 141 are on life-support devices like respirators, motorized wheelchairs, or sleep monitors.
At least one customer receiving medical baseline rates said, when approached by a reporter, that she was completely unaware of the proposed plan, let alone that it could be in place as early as Sept. 1.
Cathy Revetta operates a licensed residential care facility out of her home on the outskirts of El Cajon, which falls within the shutoff area. She cares for four patients between the ages of 88 and 98, and two of them use round-the-clock oxygen concentrators. A third is a hospice patient. All four residents, she said, must remain in air-conditioned rooms on hot days.
Losing access to electricity, she said, could be devastating for her residents.
She was surprised to learn about the plan, and said she would be unprepared for an extended power outage, except to evacuate her patients. The generator she has for her home could not supply enough power to run the air conditioner, oxygen devices, and refrigeration for 12 to 72 hours, the length of time SDG&E has said shutoffs could last.
A sufficient generator would cost her between $3,000 and $5,000, an expense she said she can’t afford.
After being informed about Revetta’s case, an SDG&E representative called Revetta and offered a home visit.
“She was very nice, but she didn’t have any answers,” Revetta said.
Revetta and the more than 200 other medical baseline customers that SDG&E has said it has been unsuccessful in speaking with highlight the difficulties the company has had in ensuring that its most vulnerable customers are aware and prepared for potential electricity cuts as early as next month.
In Revetta’s case, Donovan said, the company mailed a packet with information about the proposed plan, and called her multiple times. Revetta said she hadn’t received the information, or the phone calls informing her of the plan.
Donovan said she did not know why Revetta might have fallen through the cracks, but that “it was not for lack of trying” on SDG&E’s part. The company contracted with 211, a nonprofit telephone service, to call each of its medical baseline customers and survey them about their backup electricity plans. Each baseline customer was tried at least five times, she said.
The company also has a field team of 18 employees who have canvassed the area affected by the shutoff, Donovan said, and sent certified letters to medical baseline customers.
“We’ve made not just reasonable attempts to reach these medical baseline customers, but exhaustive efforts,” she wrote in an e-mail. “It could be that some of these customers have received the information and simply don’t want or don’t feel the need to contact SDG&E.”
SDG&E does not have plans to delay the shutoff’s implementation if it cannot assure that all of its medical baseline customers are aware of the plan, Donovan said. She was unsure whether the field team is currently focusing on medical baseline customers or on the affected area at large.
Nor have the company’s direct contact efforts necessarily targeted households or additional care facilities whose residents require medical devices but who are not part of SDG&E’s medical baseline program. The company told the Public Utilities Commission it would conduct special outreach for “essential” customers, like schools, medical facilities, and customers with life support devices, but that would apparently fall short of direct contact.
Several residential care facility operators contacted by voiceofsandiego.org said they were either unaware of the proposed plan or were aware of it, but not because of direct communication with the utilities company.
Cliff Froning, the owner of Country Oaks Private Residential Care in Valley Center, cares for three elderly patients, one on an oxygen concentrator.
He does not receive medical baseline rates, and said he hadn’t heard of the proposed shutoff plan. Though his facility is in the affected area, he said he did not recall receiving the packet that SDG&E has said it mailed to all affected customers in late May.
“Are they going to be providing generators for all of the equipment we have to run?” he asked. “We don’t have a generator.”
The company has offered some medical baseline and low-income customers $250 debit cards and free transportation in the event of a shutoff, though critics of the shutoff plan have said those concessions are insufficient to protect vulnerable residents.
Cynthia Merz-Baxter, who also runs a residential care facility in Valley Center, said she learned of the shutoff plan on the news, not through SDG&E. Her patients use oxygen concentrators, but she does not qualify for medical baseline rates, she said, and she received neither a phone call nor the information packet, she said.
Elizabeth Franco runs the Sunny Meade care facility in Ramona, which is within the shutoff plan’s boundaries. She does not receive reduced rates. When asked whether she was aware of the plan, she said, “I had no idea. From what we had collectively understood, we thought it wasn’t even going to include Ramona.” Though her patients do not use oxygen, they do require air-conditioning on hot days, she said.
Donovan said though these customers differ from medical baseline customers only in the rates they pay, they may not have been directly contacted by phone or in person.
“If they’re not identified as medical baseline, I don’t think we have had the same kind of outreach,” Donovan wrote in an e-mail.
County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who has fiercely opposed the shutoff plan, called the possibility that essential customers may be unaware of it disturbing.
“The fact that people who would be affected by this plan don’t even know about it at this point shows that SDG&E has once again failed in their responsibilities,” she said.
The company’s original proposal will be amended on Sept. 10, when the Public Utilities Commission decides between two internal recommendations for the plan. One would deny it outright, and the other would amend and allow it to go forward on a trial basis.