Senior Benefits program poised to sunset
February 1, 2018
Imagine you are driving down an empty two-lane highway somewhere in Alaska. It is cold and very windy. You see something ahead. It is a car nosed over into the ditch, flashers on. A person in obvious distress is standing beside the car waving you down. Do you stop to help? You do because this is the unwritten code of the Alaskan traveler. We stop to help people who need assistance.
This sentiment is so strong among Alaskan residents that it is enshrined in the State Constitution as a fundamental duty of our elected representatives. Section 4 of Article 7 is entitled “Public Health.” There is only one sentence in that subsection, but it is blunt and powerful: “The legislature shall provide for the promotion and protection of public health.”
Section 5 of Article 7 is entitled “Public Welfare.” Here too the constitution specifies an uncompromising and comprehensive mandate: “The legislature shall provide for public welfare.”
In light of both Alaskan tradition and constitutional directive, a state program has been in place to protect vulnerable seniors since 1972. At that time the program was called the Alaska Longevity Bonus Program. Initially it provided $250 (the equivalent today of nearly $1,500) to all Alaska residents age 65 or older.
Over the decades the program has morphed in both name and details, but the mission has remained the same. Now this decades-old program—so critical to the life and health of vulnerable seniors in Alaska—is in jeopardy. But first a bit about the current iteration of the program.
Since 2007 it has been called the Senior Benefits Program. At the present time monthly payments range from $250 to $76 depending on “gross annual income.” For example, an unmarried senior with an income up to $942 per month who meets all program requirements is eligible to receive $250 per month. A married couple with an income between $20,290 and $35,508 is eligible to receive $76 per month.
Many Alaska seniors who qualify for this program have not applied and are missing out on support they are entitled to receive. To find out if you or someone you know is eligible for monthly payments from the Senior Benefits Program, call the Senior Benefits Office: 1-888-352-4150 or 907-352-4150, or visit the website at: http://dhss.alaska.gov/dpa/Pages/seniorbenefits.
Approximately 12,000 Alaskan seniors are currently recipients of Senior Benefits cash payments. These are among the most vulnerable seniors in the state. According to testimony submitted by the Alaska Commission on Aging,
The risk of poverty is far greater for seniors who are 75 years and older, as well as for persons living alone, widowed women, and those of minority status. According to the Division of Public Assistance (2016), the average age of recipients is 75 and the maximum age is 104. Typically, seniors who receive Senior Benefits are older and often have little or no cushion to meet emergency needs, let alone to afford basic life necessities.
According to testimony submitted by AARP Alaska,
Rural Alaskans, especially those who live subsistence lifestyles...are least likely to have cash income. If they receive Social Security, their benefits are often very low. The loss of the Senior Benefits Program would hurt many older Alaskans living in our remote villages.
The essential nature of this program is clear, but at the same time its very existence is threatened. Under current legislation the Senior Benefits program is due to “sunset,” in other words be terminated, June 2018. However, House Bill 236, sponsored by Rep. Scott Kawasaki and cosponsored by many others, will extend the Senior Benefits Program until 2022. Note that there is a long history of bipartisan support for the Senior Benefits Program. If this program is important to you, there are actions you can take:
Call your legislators and express your feelings about HB 236 and the Senior Benefits Program. You can track this legislation and find out who your legislators are by contacting the Legislative Information Office at (907) 269-0111, or visit the website at akleg.gov
Email your personal stories or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. These comments will be distributed to all legislators in committees considering HB 236.
Don’t be shy! Remember, the Alaska Constitution mandates that “The legislature shall provide for public welfare.” This would be a good time to remind your legislators of this important obligation.
Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program, and author of several books and numerous articles.