Legislature renews Senior Benefits program

End of session review

The 2014 Alaska Legislative Session included a handful of bills that were important to seniors, from formalizing a change to the mediset program that allows smaller pharmacies to distribute medicine in hourly or daily dosage packs to Medicaid patients, to extending the Senior Benefits Program that provides a cash benefit to seniors who have a low to moderate income.

At press time the Senior Benefits Program was being approved and several other bills debated as the Legislature worked to close out the session. Another important bill, Senate Bill 169, the statewide universal vaccine program, had passed earlier. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage and North Kenai.

“This bill establishes a public-private partnership whereby health insurers and other providers pay the state in advance for vaccines, allowing us to use our bulk buying power to obtain vaccines at a reduced cost,” Giessel wrote in an announcement that the bill had passed. “The vaccines are then distributed to participating clinics across the state. Since the bill provides an ‘opt in’ provision for three years, the insurers, self-insured groups and other healthcare providers can try out the program to see if they realize a cost savings. We are confident they will.”

Giessel, in her announcement, said had the bill not passed, it “would have left half of all Alaska’s children unvaccinated and all adults, even our most vulnerable seniors, without affordable access to vital immunizations.”

The bill passed unanimously, but it didn’t always look like that was going to happen. Ken Helander, advocacy director for AARP Alaska, said when the legislative session began, he had no idea SB 169 would be a hot topic for his office.

“On the surface, this is a no-brainer kind of bill,” he said.

But the pharmaceutical industry lobbied against the bill, saying it cut into profits that are vital for the research and development of medications. There was an effort to take out provisions relating to vaccinations for adults and seniors, said state Health and Social Services planner Lesley Thompson in an April 17 legislation-related teleconference of the Alaska Commission on Aging.

“I would hate to see the senior and adult population taken out of this,” she said.

Those provisions stayed in the bill, which passed April 19.

“It was a huge victory,” Helander said after its passage.

Another major legislative victory this session was the April 22 passage of House Bill 263, sponsored by Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage. The bill continues the Senior Benefits Program for three years. Although the original legislation would have extended the program by six years, the Senate Finance Committee changed the timeline. Without the legislation, the program would have ended in 2015.

Property transfers

House Bill 60, sponsored by Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, was signed into law by Gov. Sean Parnell April 22. The bill affects the transfer of property upon a person’s death.

Helander explained that assets like bank accounts, stocks and securities could be designated to transfer to another person upon the owner’s death.

“Up until now, real property like a home or land has not been included in that,” Helander said.

For most people, a home is probably the largest asset of someone’s estate, he said. HB 60 allows landowners to designate a beneficiary for the property upon death. It’s not just for seniors, he added.

“It provides a very simple and vastly more inexpensive way to deal with an estate when someone dies,” Helander said.

Air ambulance services

Senate Bill 159, a bill relating to air ambulance services sponsored by Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Ketchikan, is also on the way to being signed into law. The bill allows for medevac services through a membership program for people living in rural or remote communities.

Rural deaths and autopsies

A bill regarding autopsies and death, House Bill 301, sponsored by Rep. Bob Herron, D-South Bering Sea, also passed and is awaiting the governor’s signature. The bill pertains to deaths that happen in rural areas. According to the sponsor statement, many families’ grieving process is complicated because their loved one’s body must be shipped to Anchorage for review by the state medical examiner to establish a cause of death and get a death certificate.

The bill “encourages cooperation between the state and regional health partners” and “sets clear guidelines for written communication between the ME’s (medical examiner’s) office and families, offering information on the processes, options and resources available to them in a neutral and respective manner,” according to information from Rep. Herron.

Extending the Health Care Commission

A bill extending the Alaska Health Care Commission for three years is awaiting transmittal to the governor. Senate Bill 135, sponsored by Rep. Donald Olson, D-Nome, extends the commission for three years. The commission is a state health planning and coordinating body tasked with providing recommendations to the governor and legislature on comprehensive health care policy and strategy for improving the health of Alaskans.

Bring it back next year

Not all legislation related to seniors passed, however. A bill relating to power of attorney, sponsored by Rep. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, got a late start during the session but Helander said he hopes the bill will be reintroduced next year.

The bill, HB 254, clarifies the responsibility of a person receiving power of attorney and lines the wording up with language in other states to eliminate problems when a senior and his or her power of attorney live in different states.

“Next year it will be reintroduced, there will be a new legislature and there will be an opportunity in the interim to meet with and inform legislators,” Helander said. “It’s much more ready to go now than it was six months ago.”

House Bill 134, by Rep. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, passed the House but didn’t appear to be on the way to passage in the Senate as the session wound down. The bill formalizes a mediset management service that allows pharmacies to provide individual doses of medication to patients using Medicaid. The bill was in the Senate Rules committee but at press time had not yet been scheduled.

Budget items

Legislators were still working on the budget, arguably the most important bill for seniors. At press time the operating budget still included a $545,000 line item for the Nutrition, Transportation and Support Services senior grant program. The program helps pay for the Meals on Wheels food delivery program and for transportation services to eligible seniors.

“This is really an accomplishment, given the funding cuts to other programs,” said Thompson in an email regarding items the Alaska Commission on Aging was following.

Also in the budget was $2 million for the Alaska Heating Assistance Program. The House Finance committee had removed the money earlier in the session. The program is important for Alaska seniors and others living on a fixed income. According to Thompson the program served 13,678 households in the state last year, of which 4,178 had an elderly member.

Lastly, the House and Senate Conference Committee had accepted a recommendation to add back nearly $1 million in general fund dollars to restore most of the Supporting Health Care Access through Loan Repayment Program, or SHARP funding. The program makes it more affordable for communities to address shortages of healthcare professionals by offering student loan repayment to physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, dentists, psychologists, psychiatrists and others who provide direct patient care.

Helander said the passage of many pieces of legislation simply would not have happened without the determined help of seniors affected by the bills.

“I can write a letter and say I speak for AARP but there’s nothing more powerful than a constituent calling them up and saying ‘I vote for you – or not,’” Helander said.