The money for helping people with their heating bills is already sent out through various state agencies. More will be coming in later this month.

The highest priority is being given to elderly residents who are having trouble making ends meet because of rising heating bills. Local government agencies are supposed to advertise where to go to apply for help and are supposed to supply transportion or make it easy to be certified by mail.

If you are a low-income person (or couple) and are retired, you should check with your local area agency on aging for more information and assistance on how to get energy assistance payments.

Senior centers should also have people designated to help with energy assistance programs. In some areas, community action agencies can be of help and in others it will be the local department of energy.

According to a bulletin put out by the National Senior Citizen Law Center, here's how the energy assistance program is supposed to work:

Assistance will be limited to married couples with incomes of $5,625 or less and single persons with incomes of less than $4,250. People who are getting Supplemental Security Income payments (SSI), it appears, should automatically qualify for energy-assistance payments.

People who rent their homes also will be included. If you have to go out and buy extra space heaters, you might qualify for help. Or, a local government may decide that you can get help to pay for the increased rent caused by higher fuel costs for the landlord.

You can get a line of credit of up to $400 to pay you fuel bill or, under a companion program, you can get a payment of $50 to help defray other costs (after you've paid your fuel bill).

You also may be eligible for emergency assistance for fuel deliveries, warm clothing, blankets, temporary shelter, emergency home repairs, food, medicine and other services.

State and local governments have to provide an appeals system so you can have a hearing if you're turned down. When you apply for energy assistance, it helps if you have a knowledgeable person at a senior center or agency on aging to give you assistance.

Local governments will be able to set up their own programs or put the money into existing programs such as SSI or food stamps.

You can expect a certain amount of confution at first but keep trying. If you're turned down for assistance, get some paralegal help from a local senior center and try again.

It's expected that some 35 million people should qualify for energy assistance. And some 7 million of those eligible will be over age 65.

Some $400 million already has been sent out to the various states for distribution through various community services programs.

Another $800 million should be on the way this month. If you qualify for one program, don't let it drop there. You might qualify for another.

All winter long, keep alert for new energy-assistance programs in your area. Local governments are supposed to advertise them on television, radio and through the newspapers.

But, keeping in close touch with a senior center or local agency on aging is your best bet for the latest information.