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Gov. Frank Murkowski's proposal to create a prescription drug benefit for Alaska senior citizens is getting a friendly reception in the Legislature.
Just three days into the legislative session, the bill has moved through Health Education and Social Services committees in the House and Senate. It next goes to the Finance committees.
The proposal would give low-income older Alaskans a choice between two programs - a $120-per-month cash assistance option the administration set up last summer or the new $1,600-per-year prescription drug reimbursement plan.
Both programs would end when a federal prescription drug plan for senior citizens goes into effect in January 2006.
"This is bridge assistance for seniors until that program begins," said Joel Gilbertson, Health and Social Services commissioner.
Sen. Gretchen Guess, an Anchorage Democrat, said she supports the bill, but would prefer that the cash assistance not end in 2006. She worries that the program is being discussed as a replacement for the longevity bonus, which the governor vetoed last year, and people may not understand that it is temporary.
"I don't want poor seniors to start budgeting this $120, and in two years it goes away," Guess said.
Gilbertson said the state provides an array of other services for low-income older Alaskans, ranging from help with heating bills to nursing home care.
The Murkowski administration started the cash benefit program for low-income senior citizens last summer after the governor vetoed funding for the more expensive longevity bonus program.
The longevity bonus program, which was being phased out, provided monthly checks of up to $250, regardless of income, to Alaskans who were 65 or older by the end of 1996. It would have cost the state about $45 million this year.
Murkowski said the state could not afford the program, and that it was not fair because its phase-out provisions excluded younger senior citizens, some of whom were needier than those receiving the bonus.
Senior citizen groups, including AARP, fought the loss of the longevity bonus last year.
Marie Darlin, coordinator for the AARP Capital City Task Force, said the group has not decided whether to push for reinstatement of the program. The group supports the governor's new SeniorCare proposal, she said.
"Any financial assistance to help older Alaskans cope with escalating prescription drug costs will be welcome," Darlin said.
Gilbertson said whether senior citizens choose the cash assistance or prescription reimbursement option will depend on whether they have high drug bills.
The prescription plan provides slightly more help - $1,600 a year versus $1,440 under the cash program. But people with relatively low drug costs won't be able to make full use of that plan and would be better off with the cash benefit.
The cash and prescription drug benefit programs would be available to people 65 and older with incomes of less than $15,134 a year and liquid assets of less than $4,000. A couple could have a combined income of $20,439 and liquid assets of up to $6,000.
A more limited prescription reimbursement benefit of $1,000 a year would be available to those making slightly more money - up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level, or $16,815 a year for a single person and $22,710 for a couple. The limit on liquid assets, such as checking account balances, would remain the same.
The state plans to use federal money to pay for more than half the program's costs, with the state's portion expected to be $316,800 in the current fiscal year, $2.9 million in the 2005 fiscal year that starts July 1, and $7.8 million in 2006.