Some Americans are finding the government-issued coupons used to help pay for digital television converter boxes are expiring before they can be redeemed, House lawmakers said Tuesday.
Consumers also are having a tough time finding converter boxes, which are sold out in some stores, and should be given more time to buy them even after the coupons expire, several lawmakers said during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing.
"If you can't get a box within the 90 days, what good is this?" said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who held up one of the coupons that resemble plastic gift cards.
The government established a $1.5 billion coupon program to help millions of consumers buy the converter boxes before the nationwide transition to digital programming in February.
Households are eligible for two $40 coupons, which are aimed primarily at up to 21 million owners of the older-model sets that rely on antennas to watch TV. If they don't get a converter box when the country's broadcasters complete the switchover, they will wind up staring at a blank screen. Cable and satellite TV subscribers do not need the boxes.
Overall, about 8.5 million households have requested 16 million coupons since the program started earlier this year, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is overseeing the coupon program. Nearly 3 million coupons have been redeemed so far.
There are 1,819 participating retailers in the coupon program, such as Best Buy Co., RadioShack Corp., Target Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
While Stupak said there has been some evidence that several retailers have defrauded customers, NTIA Associate Administrator Bernadette McGuire-Rivera said there have been "no egregious instances of waste, fraud and abuse" in the coupon program.
Still, several unnamed retailers have been decertified from the program for various rules violations, and the agency has taken action to ensure that stores correct adverse effects on consumers.
"We have had to pull a dozen bad apples out of the barrel," McGuire-Rivera said.
Of the roughly 840,000 coupons that recently expired, 42 percent were redeemed, the agency said. Under current government rules, consumers with expired coupons cannot reapply for new ones.
Rep. Charles Gonzalez, D-Texas, said if 58 percent of consumers are ineligible to get new coupons that could present "some real serious problems."
Several lawmakers have urged the NTIA to be flexible with consumers whose coupons expire, either by extending the deadline or allowing them to reapply for new coupons.
The statutory deadline cannot be changed, said NTIA spokesman Todd Sedmak, but the agency is examining the "new idea" that consumers can reapply for new coupons. He said the agency is weighing several factors, including whether there are enough funds to implement the idea.