ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Rate increases at Alaska Pioneer Homes, which have been in the public's eye since February 2019, went into effect Sept. 1. They’ve prompted some residents to pack their bags.
New regulations add two tiers to the Pioneer Homes care system -- from three to five tiers based on the level of need. Previously, the highest tier paid about $6,800 per month, that's jumped to $15,000.
The Department of Health and Social Services provided a statement as to why the rate adjustment was needed on Tuesday:
"The rate increase covers the actual cost of providing care to Pioneer Home residents. At the current rates, DHSS covers the difference between what residents pay and the actual cost of providing care each month. In FY 2019, the State of Alaska subsidized every Pioneer Home resident at a cost of $34,592,000."
"With this rate change, elders who have the ability to pay the increased rates will not be asked to subsidize services that others receive. Nor will the increase in rates be used to subsidize services that others receive. All funds stay in the Alaska Pioneer Homes to meet the needs of the residents."
State officials held public comment sessions on the proposed rate increases, but Anchorage Pioneer Home resident Verna Espenshade says she feels residents’ objections were not fully considered. She now has to pay over $400 more per month.
"Now, they say I have to go on welfare, I have to apply for assistance,” Espenshade said. “I could have paid my rent at the rate it was, and still had a little bit leftover."
Espinshade says she's noticed people moving out since residents were notified of the rate increases in early August.
"They're saying they can't afford it, so they're moving out," she said.
The Department of Health and Social Services confirms out of the six total Alaska Pioneer Homes, eight residents have left since the rate increases went into effect. That includes three in Anchorage. However, this is only 3.9 percent of the total Alaska Pioneer Homes population, according to DHSS. They say there is a waiting list to move into the homes, and they expect those spots to be filled.
The Office of the Governor has said residents will not be forced to leave – that those unable to afford the increase would receive assistance through a state program.
David Teal with the Legislative Finance Division says there may not be enough money in the Payment Assistance Program for long-term support.
"I don't know if the assistance is going to be sufficient to make up the losses that people are experiencing," Teal said. "They put some money in, but they didn't have any information about how many people earn how much money; how many people might leave; how many people would stay; of those that stayed, what are their income levels? It's really difficult to figure out -- they sort of implemented rates before figuring out who would be impacted and by how much."
Senator Bill Wielechowski, (D) – Anchorage, says the Legislature fully funded Alaska Pioneer Homes, but Governor Dunleavy vetoed that funding and has enacted the rate increases through an executive order. Wielechowski is concerned the state has underestimated the financial burden this has placed on residents.
"There's been no real, substantive debate on the impacts,” he said, “and how many Alaskans will be affected, or how they'll be affected -- and how the families are going to be affected.”
The governor’s press secretary Matt Shuckerow maintains no one is being forced out; that the Payment Assistance Program has $25 million to support Pioneer Home residents. Many have said this is not so much about the state budget as it is about much-needed updates to the Pioneer Home system.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the rate increases went into effect on Aug. 30, however that's the date the new tiered system of care went into effect. This version has also been updated to provide more specific language and context, provided by the DHSS.
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