Senior programs feel the budget pressure

The budget axe continues to fall on programs affecting low income seniors as lawmakers deliberate where to cut state spending to help offset a huge budget deficit. Although the numbers can be a moving target as legislators debate and negotiate, at Senior Voice press time March 29, a few proposals seemed to be moving forward.

Senior Benefits program

The legislature looks set to eliminate the monthly cash assistance benefit to the top income tier of seniors in the program, those who earn up to $25,760 annually. Up until now, the program has paid three different-sized payments to three different income levels of seniors age 65 and older. The lowest-income receive higher payments, $250, and the slightly income higher level receive $175. The top tier has already seen a 62 percent reduction this year: in March, payments dropped from $125 to $47, affecting 5,348 seniors. Now legislators have removed funding altogether for this higher income group, while funding was allocated for the other two lower-income levels, some 6,000 seniors.

Heating Assistance

It appears the state’s Heating Assistance program, which provides energy assistance for households earning up to 221 percent of the poverty level, is going away. Gov. Bill Walker’s budget zeroed it out, as have the House and Senate. In FY2016, 815 households that received home heating assistance through this program had at least one elderly member age 60 or older, according to a report from the Alaska Commission on Aging. The report notes that the cut will not affect funding for the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which provides heating assistance for households up to 151 percent of the poverty level.

Pioneer Homes

There is a proposed $1.5 million reduction of general funds for the Pioneer Homes, which will mean the loss of 15 full time employees. This will result in a reduction of beds and a longer wait list. There is also a proposal to impose a $100 fee to be on the wait list.

The homes currently provide residential care for 535 older Alaskans with an average age of 86 years, and 58 percent are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or related dementia.

Alaska Medicaid Adult Dental Program

Medicaid Adult Dental is a Medicaid state option program, implemented in 2007, and is used by many qualifying low-income seniors. Medicare does not cover most dental care, including dentures. In fiscal year 2015, 4,026 seniors age 60 and older used the program, but it is currently targeted for a $3.16 million reduction, which will trigger an additional $2.88 million loss of federal funding.

The Alaska Commission on Aging noted in a Feb. 29 position paper that dental pain and missing or decaying teeth often affect the dietary choices for seniors, which can impact overall health.

“Studies have consistently shown the link between oral health and chronic disease,” the statement continues. “Older adults are at high risk for dental decay that has been associated with periodontal disease, diabetes, pneumonia and cardiovascular disease, including increased risk for stroke and vascular dementia.”

Taking away the coverage for routine dental care and lower-level treatments could force seniors to use emergency rooms, at significantly higher costs.

Senior and Disabled Veteran Property Tax Exemption

Although not an outright cut, House Bill 338 and companion Senate Bill 183 would remove the state requirement that municipalities and boroughs exempt seniors and disabled veterans from paying property taxes on the first $150,000 of their home’s assessed value. The mandate has been in place for decades, and has been a sore spot for municipalities, claiming it imposes a burdensome unfunded mandate.

In an HB 338 sponsor statement, Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, argues, “To balance their own budgets, cities and boroughs need flexibility to decide which measures will meet the needs of their communities. If a large senior segment of the community is mandated to be exempt from property tax, it increases the tax burden on the younger residents. Local communities have different demographics, needs, and priorities which should be addressed at the local level. It is unfair of the state to restrict, without compensation, a municipality’s ability and choice on how they fund their own budget.”

The bills only remove the mandatory requirement and cities could choose to continue offering the exemption, or change it to a lower amount, or perhaps make it income-based. However, critics of the proposal have argued in previous efforts to remove the mandate that it would almost certainly result in a loss of the benefit in some communities, forcing senior homeowners on fixed incomes to pay higher taxes, potentially forcing them to sell their homes where property values have risen significantly.

At press time, both the Senate and House bills were in their respective Community and Regional Affairs committees.