Dunleavy eliminates funding for low-income Senior Benefits Payment Program

Alaska’s low-income seniors stand to lose cash assistance from the state. That’s following Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s line item veto eliminating about $20.8 million for the Senior Benefits Payment Program.

In the southeast town of Wrangell, 68-year-old Lansing Hayes has lunch most days at the local senior center. He receives $175 a month from the Senior Benefits Payment Program. The check supplements his most basic needs.

“So I get to have health insurance and food which makes me pretty happy,” Hayes says.

Otherwise, he pays his bills with less than $1,300 a month in social security.

More than a third of seniors on the program live in Anchorage. But U.S. census data suggests the communities most affected per capita are in towns like Wrangell in rural Alaska.

But following Dunleavy’s veto, Hayes will soon be among more than 11,000 elderly Alaskans to lose this assistance. The program is income-based, paying between $75 to $250 a month.

It’s a terrible blow to low-income seniors across the state,” Erin Walker-Tolles says. She is the executive director of Catholic Community Service, which runs the senior centers in Wrangell and 10 other communities across Southeast.

During legislative session I have seniors from many communities come up to me and talk to me about how they are going to reduce the amount of food they buy or choose between food and medication if Senior Benefits goes away,” Walker-Tolles says.

She says seniors will feel the effects of cuts throughout the budget. Even though seniors rely on federal Medicare for health insurance, those with severe disabilities access additional services through the state’s Medicaid waiver program. Those include free meals and rides at these senior centers.

And any cuts passed down to municipalities, such as school bond debt reimbursement, are of concern, since local governments provide 25% of these senior centers funding.

Back at Wrangell’s senior center, I ask Hayes what he would say to the governor about these cuts.

“I don’t think his political stance on trying to shut down all these programs was honest,” he says.

Hayes thinks the state should raise more revenue from oil production.

But he says he’s optimistic he’ll make ends meet with $2,100 less a year.

“Yeah, I always get by,” he says.

It’s unclear when monthly payments will cease. Calls to the state’s Department of Health and Social Services weren’t immediately returned Friday afternoon.

It would take three quarters of the Legislature to override the governor’s veto.