AUSTIN (KXAN) — While Austin Energy crews in the field worked to restore power outages during the recent ice storm, other city staff were tracking their most at-risk customers.

The City of Austin keeps a registry of utility customers with a long-term disease, ailment or critical illness. This does not include nursing home residents or hospital patients, but rather residential customers in their homes.

Customers eligible for the program receive more time to pay their bills and special attention from city staff and partnering social service agencies — especially during storms and disasters. The city’s website emphasizes the sole purpose of the registry is to provide services to people who may need them. The customers are not guaranteed power during a crisis.

As of January 2022, the City of Austin had 190 registered in their Medically Vulnerable Registry.

A year ago, when freezing temperatures left thousands of Austinites in the dark and cold for days during the February 2021 winter storm, the city served 365 people. Of those, 220 were registered as medically vulnerable in Austin Energy’s service area. Its Customer Assistance Program staff then reached out to an additional 145 customers who had inquired about the registry, but not been approved, and customers who had previously been enrolled, but had not submitted medical documentation.

A spokesperson for Austin Energy told KXAN its staff works with eligible customers to create an emergency plan, including backup power sources or a safe location to relocate, along with an emergency contact.

“We provided customers with information about warming shelters and transportation options, as well as emergency services,” the spokesperson said in an email during the 2021 storm. “In some cases where we were unable to reach a customer or are concerned about their welfare, we contacted 9-1-1 on their behalf to request a wellness check.”

Because of the burden on emergency services at the time, Austin Energy said it deployed field staff to conduct a small number of wellness checks. An after-action report from this storm, released in October 2021, stated field staff conducted 21 wellness checks and referred nine customers to EMS.

This after-action report suggested Austin Energy:

  • Work with other city departments to establish a coordinated communication process to assist customers on this registry
  • Refine the existing process to update contact information more regularly

So far, Austin Energy said it was working with the city’s Homeland Security & Emergency Management department on these efforts. It has also developed an internal triage and communication process to determine when wellness checks are needed, whether Austin Energy staff can conduct those or if emergency services are necessary.

Am I eligible?

To qualify for the Medically Vulnerable registry, the city says customers must meet one of the following criteria:

  • On a life support system that requires uninterrupted electric or water service, such as an iron lung, ventilator, feeding pump, kidney dialysis machine, aerosol tent, apnea monitor, blood pump, compressor/concentrator, electric nerve stimulator, extremity pump, hospital bed, hemodialysis machine, oxygen concentrator, pressure pump, pressure pad or respirator
  • Treated by a licensed physician for a critical illness such as paraplegia, quadriplegia, hemiplegia, multiple sclerosis or scleroderma
  • Treated by a licensed physician for a serious illness impacted by changes in temperature

These qualifying criteria must be continually recertified. For more details, click here.

How to apply

To join the registry, call Customer Care at 512-494-9400. Austin Energy asks for the name and number of the customer’s physician, as well as the type of medical equipment in the customer’s household.