A Health and Human Services proposal to cut federal energy bill assistance for the poor would hurt about 38,000 Utah families, officials say.

The proposal is in a letter by HHS Director Louis Sullivan to the federal Office of Management and Budget. Sullivan suggests concentrating the government's heating assistance to the nation's Northeast section, eliminating the South and West.Sullivan's original proposal also was to cut funding for the program from $1.4 billion to less than $500 million. The agency is now backing away from that, but remains committed to channeling most dollars to the Northeast.

Cathie Pappas, director of the HEAT program for the Utah Department of Human Services, said she was surprised by Sullivan's proposal. It had been her understanding that funding for HEAT (Home Energy Assistance Target program) was to be maintained for the next four years.

HEAT is designed to provide a one-time assistance payment to low income families. Pappas said the maximum payment a family can receive is based on income.

So far, the program statewide has given payments to 12,000 households, each averaging $220.

"We anticipate serving close to 38,000 households by the time the program ends," she said.