How seniors fared in the 2024 legislative session

The 33rd Alaska Legislature concluded its two-year session on May 15.

The legislature set out to prioritize energy and education policy in 2024, and those issues did take much of the session’s focus, political will, and compromise, in addition to the usual budget process.

AARP Alaska’s 2024 legislative advocacy pushed for policies and funding that support aging in place, financial security, and improved access to healthcare. We saw major successes in our work to restore and expand funding for critical programs serving older Alaskans, with additional victories in our efforts to increase access to healthcare and address food insecurity. We built support around our efforts to pass retirement readiness legislation and will continue advocacy on those priorities in the coming session.

Community-based grants for services

With support from the AGE Net senior services provider network and the Alaska Commission on Aging, AARP successfully advocated to increase state funding for Senior and Disabilities Community Grants. Grants to nonprofit organizations fund supportive services for elders such as meals on wheels, congregate meals, transportation, light housekeeping, chore services, health promotion, adult day programs, and education and respite for family caregivers. The FY25 Governor’s Budget had a $2.7 million cut to the Senior Community Grants due to expiring federal funds that would have resulted in older Alaskans losing services critical to remaining independent at home.

With our backing, the legislature added back $1.5 million for senior community grants and $1.5 million for adult day services grants, resulting in a combined $3 million in support for senior services, which is an increase of $300,000, necessary to help meet the growing senior population. We also supported an increase in provider reimbursement rates for Personal Care Services that resulted in $5 million in combined state and federal funding to raise wages and reduce the in-home services workforce crisis.

Senior housing; Long-Term Care Ombudsman; Senior Benefits program

The legislature also included a funding increase for two new staff positions in the Alaska Long Term Care Ombudsman Office. The additional staff will advocate for and ensure the safe care of vulnerable seniors in long-term care facilities. The increase is necessary to meet growth in the number of facilities and corresponding need for Ombudsman visits.

The state Capital Budget includes $3 million for the Senior Housing Development Fund managed by Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, which is an increase of $1.25 million after at least a decade of flat funding. The Fund provides grants, federal tax credits, and federal zero-interest loans to municipalities and non-profits to build affordable rental housing for low to moderate income seniors and funds accessibility modifications so seniors can remain independent in their homes.

AARP Alaska also prevailed on the critical extension of the Senior Benefits Program, slated to sunset this year and not included in the governor’s budget. The Senior Benefits Program pays cash assistance to low-income Alaskans age 65 and older who are not in Pioneer Homes or other institutional care. Benefit eligibility is tied to the Alaska Federal Poverty Guidelines. In 2022, the program served 9,000 seniors at an average of 75 years old with the oldest participant age 104. In the final hours of the session, the legislature passed the original House bill language with a 10-year sunset provision as an amendment to another bill (SB 147) with the Senate concurring.

New Medicaid waiver demonstration project

AARP Alaska also saw wins on several programs that support seniors’ access to health services, including HB344, a bill authorizing a Medicaid 1115 demonstration project waiver for health-related social needs. The waiver can pay for unmet medically necessary nutrition, housing, or transportation expenses on a time-limited basis for Medicaid eligible enrollees.

How Alaska will shape the program will emerge over the next year or more, though the Dept. of Health has indicated that it will focus on Medicaid enrollees who frequently need emergency room services and have specific chronic conditions with modifiable nutritional or housing needs. Each of the 16 states who have approved this new Medicaid waiver option have taken different localized approaches to address their state’s emergency room high-utilizer populations.

Expanded eligibility for SNAP

Legislation to implement Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility (BBCE) for Alaska’s Supplemental Nutrition Aid Program (SNAP) was amended into HB344 in the final hours of the session. Broad-based categorical eligibility is proven to increase senior participation in the program because of the removal of the asset test, as seniors are more likely to have both low-income streams requiring food assistance and disqualifying assets such as homes and savings. BBCE also allows the state to phase down benefits for working families as their income rises, providing food assistance up to 200% of the federal poverty level.

More health care workers

We saw partial success in our work to increase the pool of qualified healthcare providers in Alaska. Though the legislature did not pass AARP priority bill HB149 - the Nurse Licensure Compact - they did pass legislation to join interstate compacts for Physical Therapy and Audiology and Speech Pathology. Joining these compacts allows licensed practitioners in member states to practice in Alaska, alleviating the healthcare workforce shortage that impedes Alaskans’ access to quality care. These mark the first multi-state healthcare compacts Alaska has joined, which address barriers to care for our aging population and mitigate the state’s healthcare workforce shortage.

Retirement and pensions

In AARP’s multi-year retirement readiness legislation campaign, we saw momentum build toward passage of a modest public employee pension plan and a state-managed workplace retirement savings plan. Our work on those priorities will continue into the next legislative session. Retirement readiness is good for Alaska and good for Alaskans. With robust savings and retirement options in both the public and private sectors, we can have a thriving small business climate and reliable public services that keep generations of Alaskans in the last frontier.

AARP will host Senate President Gary Stevens and Speaker of the House Cathy Tilton on Wednesday June 5 at 1 p.m. to debrief the 2024 legislative session in a telephone townhall that will be livestreamed on AARP Alaska’s Facebook page.

AARP Alaska’s full and final 33rd Alaska Legislature Wrap-Up Report will be available in June at http://www.aarp.org/ak.

Marge Stoneking has served as Advocacy Director for AARP Alaska since 2020.

 
 
Rendered 06/16/2024 08:19