As winter closes in, the painful human toll is becoming all too clear from the widely criticized, wholesale changes made this year in Pennsylvania's annual heating-aid program.

Gov. Rendell's administration — under departing welfare chief Estelle B. Richman — took an overly conservative approach to doling out federally funded low-income heating grants.

While fiscally prudent, that course resulted in far fewer families getting aid, along with a nearly 20 percent spike in those without heating utility service.

It's not the bureaucrats who will be shivering in their homes today as a snowstorm hits the state. That fate falls instead to the more than 17,000 households — including many in Philadelphia — that the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission reports face the cold weather with their utilities cut off.

For some of those families, this is a man-made crisis that didn't have to happen. While funding proposed in President Obama's budget was lower than last year, Congress was widely expected to boost heating-aid dollars.

That's just what happened this week with the Senate passage on Sunday of spending legislation that included the expected, full $5.1 billion in funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

The shortfall so far in families receiving heating-aid funds isn't only a problem for those whose utilities have been disconnected, either. Less government aid to low-income utility customers means other customers have to pay more to subsidize poor utility users. That's particularly true at the Philadelphia Gas Works, where bills are 20 percent higher due to low-income subsidies.

The municipally owned utility itself also faces greater budget strains due to a $9 million drop in heating-aid funds received by its customers this year. While its overall fiscal condition is showing signs of improvement — thanks to a $60 million rate hike last year and greater emphasis on customer conservation — PGW nonetheless filed for an additional $42.5 million rate increase yesterday.

In August, welfare department officials pledged to reevaluate their LIHEAP strategy in the event that Congress approved more funding. Well, now is the time to act on that pledge.

Under the new acting secretary, former Philadelphia social services official Harriet Dichter, welfare officials need to review whether it's possible to rejigger the rules so that more households can draw larger heating-aid grants. Now that greater funding is in the pipeline from Washington, there's no reason for maintaining the state's tightfisted approach to doling out this aid.

If the standard of success, as one welfare official put it, is "to help as many people who are in the most need," then state officials have plenty of catching up. While they do, thousands of families are left in the cold.