State suspends payments to some Senior Benefits recipients
But legislature wants to restore funding
May 1, 2019
Update, May 3, 2019: Our print edition version of this story went to press as the legislature debated reversing the Senior Benefits cuts discussed in this story. After the paper was printed, the House and Senate both agreed to restore the funding, however the final budget has not been approved. When that happens, it will go to the governor for his approval. Stay tuned for updates.
Senior Benefits payments to some Alaska seniors will be suspended in May and June, according to the Dept. of Health and Social Services, which oversees the program.
“Individuals currently receiving $76 per month in Senior Benefits, will not receive benefits in May or June due to insufficient funding,” reads an announcement posted on the department’s website.
The Senior Benefits program pays monthly cash benefits to Alaskans age 65 or older and have low to moderate income. The program provides three payment levels, based on the senior’s gross annual income, and income limits are tied to the Federal Poverty Guidelines for Alaska. The payment levels are:
$250 per month for individuals earning up to $949 per month or married couples earning up to $1,287;
$175 per month for individuals earning up to $1,265 per month or couples earning up to $1,715;
$76 per month going to individuals earning up to $2,214 per month.
This last group is the one losing the benefit beginning this month. Lower-income seniors receiving the higher $175 and $250 monthly benefits will continue receiving their payments, for the time being. The entire program has been targeted for elimination by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, whose administration submitted House Bill 60 and companion Senate Bill 58, to end the program. In total it provides monthly assistance payments to just under 12,000 of the state’s lowest-income seniors. Dunleavy argues that the state can’t afford the program.
The department sent a letter of notice to the legislature about the cut on April 11.
It drew immediate response, with 19 members of the House Majority signing a letter of protest to Dept. of Health Commissioner Adam Crum on April 14.
“The 4,731 Senior Benefits recipients who currently receive $76 per month are some of the most financially vulnerable Alaskans,” the letter states. “On average, Senior Benefits recipients are 75 years old and physically unable to pursue job opportunities or other sources of income to make up for the lost payments. While the dollar amount may seem small, it is critically important to the fixed-income seniors who rely on this income.”
“Cutting this program suddenly with two weeks’ notice is immoral and reflects poorly on our priorities as a state,” the letter states.
In an April 8 Senate HESS committee hearing on SB 58, Division of Public Assistance Director Shawnda O’Brien said that many of those who lose the Senior Benefit are or will be eligible for other state assistance, such as adult public assistance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program (SNAP, also known as food stamps). She said that about 3,000 of the current 12,000 recipients are receiving only the Senior Benefits assistance, as of December 2018.
O’Brien also noted that while overall enrollment in the program has not increased dramatically over the years, the percentage of the number of lower-income people, in need of more assistance, has been growing faster.
The committee held the bill for further consideration. Likewise, HB 60 in the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee is being held for further hearings and consideration.
On April 26, Sen. Natasha von Imhof, Senate Finance Committee Co-Chair, sponsored an Amendment #4 to the operating budget bill, CSSSHB 39, that adds a supplemental to cover the amount needed to pay out the May and June payments for those receiving the $76 monthly payments. The intent language for this amendment stipulates that the funding may not be used for any other purpose than to fund Senior Benefit payments. However, at Senior Voice press time the budget bill was still being heard and debated.