Dunleavy budget proposal eliminates Senior Benefits Program

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - More than 11,000 Alaska senior citizens would see a monthly check disappear should Gov. Dunleavy's budget passed as proposed.

The proposed $850 million cut to the Department of Health and Social Services — including around $500 million in matching federal funds that would be lost — includes repealing the Senior Benefits Program.

"With the state facing a large budget deficit, and in an effort to reduce dependence on state funds, this program is being repealed to contain costs," the Office of Management and Budget summary reads.

The administration says the cut would save the state just under $20 million, but advocates are confident that the budget approved by the legislature won't completely eliminate the program.

"The Senior Benefits Program helps subsidize some of the seniors who are the most vulnerable and have the lowest income," Anchorage Senior Activity Center Executive Director Rebecca Parker said. "For many of them it makes a difference whether or not they have groceries or can purchase their prescriptions or buy clothing. These are not people who take vacations and live above their means."

Depending on income, the program gives eligible Alaskans between $76 and $250 each month.

"A number of people who are getting senior benefits now made major contributions to the state, and some of them were upper middle class or even upper class — just, things come up. A child gets sick, medical expenses. So they're really at the bottom," said Gordon Glaser, board president at ASAC. "It allows them to survive with a certain amount of dignity as they have gotten older, and bluntly also in a sense may be saving us money, because for the most part they're living independently. Without that small little option they may very well end up having to be in an institution."

The proposed budget also calls for a rate increase at Alaska Pioneer Homes to close the gap between the cost of service.

The governor's budget summary says that current residents pay approximately 60 percent of the true cost of services. Current residents will be held harmless to the rate increase, according to the OMB budget summary.

"My father was at the Pioneer home for three years. I know the magic inside which made it possible for him to stay here in Alaska with his family rather than going out somewhere else," Cindy Roberts said. "Alaska has been a positive product of the facilities and services that we've been able to offer to our senior generation. It needs to stay."

While the cuts to senior programs are sizeable, advocates say they are confident the legislature will not let the budget passed as proposed.

"This is the beginning of the process, not the end of the process," Glaser said. "I do have a sense that this is not fixed in stone. Yes, we have a problem to deal with. Everybody's going to have to make a sacrifice, but it shouldn't be a sacrifice that people can't survive."

Glaser and fellow advocates encourage other seniors to call and write lawmakers.

On Friday, Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, will visit the Anchorage Senior Activity Center to provide a legislative update and address the governor's budget. The event will include a Q&A session. It begins at 12:45 p.m.