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NORMAL - Lois Runge of Normal is sure her next heating bill is going to be "the big one." Runge, a senior citizen on a fixed income, opened her home Thursday to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin to discuss funding for the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program. Although $5 billion in federal dollars have been budgeted, only $2 billion has been approved to be spent. Durbin, a Democrat from Springfield, said when senators return to session Jan. 18, they will be looking at approving another $2 billion to fund the program.

Durbin added that the program normally serves 32 million people, but this year it will only help 5 million. In Illinois, 800,000 are eligible, said Durbin, but only 300,000 will see assistance.

"That doesn't even cover half of those who need the help, and it doesn't even account for the higher utility bills this year," Durbin said. "I think the (Bush) administration realizes they dramatically under-funded this program."

Runge said her $800 a month from Social Security does not cover everything, especially when she is facing a $200 gas bill.

"It really hurts the elderly," Runge said. "They've worked all their lives and now they can't keep up with their bills."

The program, also called LIHEAP, provides a one-time payment to those who are on a fixed or low income, said Roseanna Wilson, LIHEAP coordinator for the Mid-Central Community Action.

The payment provides $300 to $400 in assistance for gas bills and $100 for electric bills.

For Runge, that pays about two months for her gas and about one month for her electric.

Wilson told Durbin that many who receive assistance from LIHEAP try to do several things to keep their heating bills low such as turning down their thermostats. But for the elderly, conservation is difficult.

"I set the thermostat at 65 and I like to froze to death," Runge said. "I keep it at 68 or 70 now. I figured it was either spend money on the heating bill or spend money on a doctor's bill."

Runge also took the steps to check drafts in her home and have her furnace inspected.

"When a new bill hits you between the eyes, many people face the choice of heat or eat," Durbin said. "This is why LIHEAP is there and we need to get the money back into the program."

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