Just as the coldest months of the winter begin and an economic downturn worsens, Virginia officials have stopped accepting applications two months early for a program that helps the poor pay their heating bills because the program is almost out of money.

State officials notified local social service agencies on Wednesday that they would accept no more applications for the federally funded program after Friday. Usually applications are accepted through the end of February.

Virginia's problems come just as the Bush administration has proposed eliminating the fuel assistance plan for all but nine northeastern states next year.

Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania will continue to have the program.

In Maryland, which has enough money to continue the program this winter, Gov. William Donald Schaefer complained Friday in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan that eliminating $23 million in aid to the state next year would "have a devastating impact on tens of thousands of low-income families."

Schaefer said almost 75 percent of Maryland's approximately 80,000 aid recipients had incomes below the poverty line, and the 25 percent increase in the price of oil coupled with the nation's economic slowdown confronted them with "particularly difficult circumstances."

Meanwhile, Virginia social workers spent Friday processing last-minute applications for aid, and officials could give no final tally of those who have applied for help this winter.

DeAnn Lineberry, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Social Services in Richmond, estimated that the program will help more than 100,000 households. Last year 112,579 households received assistance, she said.

In Northern Virginia last year, about 3,800 families participated in the program. By late last week, slightly more than 3,000 had been approved to receive benefits this year, Lineberry said.

Most of Northern Virginia's recipients are in Fairfax and Prince William counties, each of which had about 1,000 families in the program.

This year Virginia was allocated $35 million for the program, and by last Wednesday $30 million already had been earmarked for needy families. Each family receives on average $271 for the entire winter heating season, Lineberry said.

Local social service workers said that most people apply for assistance in November and December. Those whose economic circumstances change or who find they can no longer afford heat as winter temperatures drop won't have an opportunity to apply for help.

"The money is running out just when we need it most," said Loraine Lemoine, director of social services in Spotsylvania County, about 50 miles south of Washington.

"We'll have a difficult time meeting the needs in the community," she said. "We've had a record number of people coming in to apply, and really, the weather hasn't been that bad."

There are strict eligibility requirements for entering the program, according to Lineberry.

For instance, eligible households can have no more than $2,000 in liquid assets -- defined as items that can be sold quickly -- or no more than $3,000 in such assets if the household includes an elderly or disabled person, Lineberry said.

Officials in the District of Columbia said their program is in no danger of running out of funds this year. Last year the District assisted 14,000 households, officials said.

Lineberry said Virginia officials will be closely watching the proposal to cut funds for the program.

"It's the Congress that makes the final decision," Lineberry said. "It is sort of difficult for congressmen and others to consider the possibility of putting people literally out in the cold."

Sullivan's proposal "would be devastating," said Sharon Cooke, a spokeswoman for the District's Energy Office. "There are so many people who depend on this. Heating is such an essential part of living, like food."

Many Maryland families using the program are "at the lowest levels of poverty {and} already are faced with many choices," said Sandra Brown, director of the Maryland Energy Assistance Program. "They would be pushed into a hole."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.