Legislators hurry to re-up Senior Benefits Program

Without action, popular assistance effort will sunset in June

Posted: Sunday, January 30, 2011

Crucial cash help for the state’s neediest seniors is slated to end by June, but some key legislators are rushing to get the Senior Benefits Program reauthorized as quickly as possible.

The Senior Benefits Program provides up to $250 per month for those who need it the most, with lesser amounts for others. It was created in 2007 after the state’s Longevity Bonus, which was not needs-based, was abolished by the Legislature.

Wasilla senior Barbara Schumacher urged the Legislature to continue the program in a hand-written letter to the Mat-Su Legislative Information Office.

“It has been a great source of comfort and financial stability to me for the past three years,” she wrote.

“I shudder to think what it would mean for your senior constituents who benefit so greatly from this program if it were to be discontinued,” she said.

“That letter says exactly what this program is all about, it provides a great source of comfort and stability to seniors,” said Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, who sponsored the original program and introduced House Bill 16 this session to extend it for another four years beyond its June 31, 2011 expiration date.

“There may be a lot of seniors who are able to make it every month with the help they get from the Senior Benefit,” said Marie Darlin, with AARP’s Capital Cities Task Force.

The extension is only for four years, to ensure that it does not become an entitlement program. Hawker said. The program is expected to cost $20 million a year for the next four years.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, supported the program but questioned continuing it four years when there are also proposals before the Legislature which would slash state revenues.

“Certainly at the moment with the state’s large cash reserve and revenue forecast, it’s just good public policy (to continue it) at this time,” Hawker said.

The Alaska Commission on Aging’s surveys of seniors have found small but significant numbers of senior who experience difficultly making basic expenses, said Executive Director Denise Daniello. More than 50 percent of people in the Wade Hampton Census Area in Southwest Alaska are eligible for the program.

The population centers of Anchorage, with 3,636, and Mat-Su, with 1,250, have the bulk of the state’s 10,000 recipients of Senior Benefits.

The majority of the recipients have lived in the state for 40 years or longer, Daniello said.

“These are long-time Alaskans,” she said.

“Living with dignity and independence affects health and well being,” she said.

The Senior Benefits Program got a strong endorsement from its first committee, Health and Human Services, last week and Monday it is scheduled to become the first bill heard in the 27th Legislature by the House Finance Committee.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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