Dunleavy restores funding for senior benefits program

Gov. Mike Dunleavy announces to a lunchtime audience at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center in Chugiak that he will restore funds for the Senior Benefits Payment Program, Aug. 12, 2019. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy is agreeing to restore funding to the state’s Senior Benefits Payment Program.

The $21.6 million in general funds pays low-income seniors an amount ranging from $76 to $250 a month. Dunleavy said he was moved to restore funds he vetoed after seniors spoke out on the importance of the program. But the governor also signaled many deep cuts will remain when he presents his revised operating budget later this week.

Dunleavy spoke at a senior center in Chugiak on Monday as a few dozen people ate lunch.

“I just want you to know that the funding for senior benefits is going to be in this year’s budget, and you should start receiving those benefits soon,” Dunleavy said during brief remarks.

The administration aims to retroactively pay benefits that have not made it to recipients since the start of the fiscal year. The state announced on July 1 that it would stop payments to 11,320 residents in order to “contain costs and reduce dependence of individuals on state funds.”

Dunleavy said hearing feedback from seniors and their families changed his position on eliminating the payments.

“You hear more and more folks, their personal stories, about how this income helps them oftentimes stay independent, oftentimes helps them with food,” Dunleavy said. “You really get down to basics when you’re talking with folks.”

The restored funding, combined with $800,000 added to the program by legislators, works out to $21,586,000 in total. The administration is not yet certain when senior benefits payments will be dispersed.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy (left) arriving at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center in Chugiak on Aug. 12, 2019, ahead of news he will not veto funds to the Senior Benefits Payment Program. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

For many at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center, the governor’s visit was a surprise.

John Kehr didn’t pay much attention to the governor’s remarks. He doesn’t receive any senior benefits, and he has no plans of leaving his home for a supported living facility. Still, according to Kehr, for some residents this is a welcomed reversal in the budget battle.

“I think it’s going to help them,” Kehr said of seniors receiving benefits. “For some of them, it would have been a pretty hefty cut.”

Across the table, Thomas Blavka agreed. The preservation of the senior benefits program is good news for people who rely on it. But he and his wife are more concerned about rates at the Alaska Pioneer Home increasing 40%-140% starting next month.

“We could make it,” Blavka said, but “it’d hurt. We’re in our 90s now, so won’t be long (before) we’ll be using some of them facilities.”

Restoring funding for senior benefits does not affect the reduced subsidies to the Pioneer Homes. Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum said the administration is trying to give Alaskans a realistic picture of the state’s financial expenditures.

“The whole goal with the Pioneer Home rate was to make sure that we were meeting, actually advertising what the cost of care is. It’s very expensive for us as a state to do this,” Crum said. “We want to make sure we maintain the level of care for those individuals, but we also have to have the honest conversation of how much it costs.”

At the highest level of care, that means Pioneer Home residents currently paying around $6,800 a month will see an increase to $15,000 a month.

Rate increases coming for Pioneer Home residents

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