Senior program funding in the state budget

During the last Alaska Commission on Aging legislative teleconference of the legislative session on May 17, members of the Alaska Commission on Aging (ACoA), helmed by ACoA Executive Director Denise Daniello, and ACoA health and social services planner Lesley Thompson, discussed updates on the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services operating budget for FY18. This is the budget component with the most influence over the state’s senior services and programs.

The House and Senate have passed both their versions of the operating budget and at Senior Voice press time the bill was on its way to the conference committee, who will reconcile the differences between the two versions of the bill in the coming weeks, said Brian Fechter, policy analyst for the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.

“Most programs through the DHSS are funded at prior year levels,” said Fechter. “Programs such as community based senior grants and Alaska Housing Finance Corporation are largely intact.”

Additionally, House Bill 236 seeks to extend the sunset date on the Senior Benefits Program to June 30, 2018 for FY18.

“The Senior Benefits Program (SBP) is always potentially on the chopping block because it provides wonderful assistance for low income seniors but uses 100 percent General Funds, which is always a tough hill to climb,” said Thompson.

“We’re definitely keeping a very close eye on the SBP in terms of next year,” added Fechter.

Where will Pioneer Home reductions fall?

Initially, the Senate proposed a 2.75 percent, or $815,500 reduction in the Alaska Pioneer Homes budget that is expected to result in the loss of two nurses and six nurse aides, according to the ACoA. The Senate then proposed a secondary reduction of $5.7 million, leading to $6.5 million in total, or 20 percent of the Pioneer Homes’ budget.

According to the Senate, the reduction targeted the Pioneer Homes because the homes have the largest amount of General Funds (GF) compared to other programs in the DHSS. The Governor’s version of the FY18 operating budget called for no reductions to the Pioneer Homes budget, with the House including the same, and the ACoA supports the House’s decision to keep Pioneer Home funding at prior year levels.

Although the Senate released their Sense of the Senate April 13 stating their intent to restore the $6.5 million reduction to the Pioneer Homes by the time the FY18 budget goes live July 1, there are still some questions as to what will happen to the $6.5 million reduction included in this draft of the budget.

“We’re concerned with where we might see this $6.5 million in other places throughout the department,” added Daniello. “After seeing the reduction and the Senate’s response and with the knowledge that the DHSS commissioner can move up to $25 million around the department, are they really going to take the 20 percent and make the department whole, make the Pioneer Homes whole, or are they going just ask the commissioner where it should go? We’ve been really fortunate, thanks to the Governor’s budget and the House going along with the Governor’s budget, that we haven’t seen the large reductions for direct programs serving seniors.”

In the end, the conference committee can only discuss the differences between the two versions of the bill brought forward by the House and the Senate, so they are unable to allocate the funds elsewhere throughout the department, Fechter said.

Other potential reductions

In addition to the potential reductions to the Pioneer Homes, the Senate has proposed cuts to the following programs, according to the Alaska Commission on Aging:

• Medicaid Adult Preventative Dental Services - $288,000 GF reduction, but the actual reduction will be at least $576,000 when the 50 percent federal Medicaid reimbursement match is included

• Public Health Nursing - $1.9 million reduction

• Adult Public Assistance - $3.5 million reduction

• Alaska Psychiatric Institute - $631,300 reduction

• Division of Senior and Disabilities Services - $304,00 reduction for personal services

The House voted to accept the Governor’s recommendation of no increases or reductions in funding for the above programs, except for Adult Public Assistance, in which the House proposed to transfer $3.3 million of excess funding to support the front line social workers in the Office of Children Services, leaving the excess remainder of $210,000 with Adult Public Assistance.

“The conference committee is meeting now to negotiate all of these differences, so if you have not already done so, please take a moment to send correspondence to those legislators and let them know that you support the funding levels proposed by the House,” Thompson said.