/PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- As part of a $1 billion rate relief package for Illinois electric customers, the Ameren Illinois utilities (AmerenCILCO, AmerenCIPS and AmerenIP) today launched two programs in partnership with the Illinois Association of Community Action Agencies to assist residential electric customers hit hardest by higher electric bills. The Bill Payment Assistance Program and the Residential Hardship Assistance Program represent a $15-million effort over four years aimed at helping residential customers adjust to the new electric rates. "In addition to the electric rate relief checks and bill credits being distributed to customers over the next month, the Residential Hardship Assistance and Bill Payment Assistance programs provide additional aid to residential electric customers who need it most," says Stan Ogden, vice president of Customer Service and Public Relations for the Ameren Illinois utilities. "These programs will provide much-needed relief for our hardest hit customers, and they target customers not previously served by other available assistance programs. We are pleased to be partnering with the member agencies of the Illinois Association of Community Action Agencies within the Ameren Illinois service territories to provide this assistance to our customers." The Bill Payment Assistance Program will provide $7 million over four years to low-income electric customers with household incomes of 150 percent to 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($30,975 to $41,300 for a family of four). Grants of $150 will be provided to customers through the local Community Action Agencies that administer the Illinois Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program for the Illinois Department of Healthcare & Family Services. Through the Residential Hardship Assistance Program, the Ameren Illinois utilities will provide $8 million over four years for bill-payment assistance for residential customers with financial and unique hardships, such as medical situations, military deployment or family tragedy. Local Community Action Agencies will distribute the funds to customers with household incomes of up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($82,600 for a family of four). Based on agency discretion, a maximum of $600 per household may be provided. Residential customers must meet the eligibility guidelines listed on http://www.ameren.com. Customers applying for the Residential Hardship Assistance Program must also demonstrate a unique hardship situation. Customers can call 1-800-252-8643 to find their local Community Action Agency and obtain more information or to apply for either program. For complete program guidelines, customers should visit http://www.ameren.com or call their Ameren Illinois utility (AmerenCILCO -- 888.672.5252; AmerenCIPS -- 888.789.2477; AmerenIP -- 800.755.5000). The Community Action Agencies will evaluate applicants to determine eligibility based on income guidelines, and will qualify hardship situations. Eligible customers will then be awarded grants that will be applied to their Ameren Illinois utility bill, while funds last. "We designed the Bill Payment Assistance Program and the Residential Hardship Assistance Program to ease the impact of rate increases for those residential electric customers who need it most," Ogden says. "We encourage customers who need a helping hand to explore these programs." The Ameren Illinois utilities serve 1.2 million electric and more than 800,000 natural gas customers in a 43,700-square-mile area of Illinois.