Governor reorganizes sr. program management

Longevity bonus could be modified

Posted: Wednesday, March 05, 2003

The Murkowski administration plans to change the way it manages pioneers' homes and other state services for Alaska's senior citizens.

The change, which would move senior services from the Department of Administration to the Department of Health and Social Services, brought promises of a fight from a major senior-citizens group.

Part of a reorganization affecting three state departments, the move was outlined Tuesday by Health and Social Services Commissioner Joel Gilbertson and Administration Commissioner Mike Miller.

Miller did not rule out deeper changes, such as basing the senior citizens' longevity bonus program on financial need, an idea that has met with opposition from senior advocates in the past. Gov. Frank Murkowski may propose a change in the program, which pays some seniors monthly $150 to $250 a month, during his budget speech at 7 tonight, Miller said.

The reorganization unveiled Tuesday moves the state's six pioneers' homes, including one in Juneau, the Division of Senior Services and the longevity bonus program from the Department of Administration.

The restructuring, spelled out in an executive order, will result in a net loss of 10 to 15 jobs, Gilbertson said. The administration does not anticipate a large amount of immediate savings, but over the long term the changes should reduce overhead costs, he said.

The state Department of Health and Social Services already handles rate-setting and licensing of long-term care providers, and putting all senior programs in one department will improve services, Gilbertson said.

Miller said while in the 1960s and 1970s the pioneers' homes were places where relatively healthy retirees went to live, they now function more as traditional nursing homes and provide much more health care than in the past. That's the specialty of the state Department of Health and Social Services, he said.

The longevity bonus program is being phased out, but at one time it provided all Alaskans older than 65 with a $250 monthly stipend. Some 20,000 older Alaskans still receive some level of stipend, at a cost of $47.5 million a year, Miller said.

The reorganization makes a number of changes Gilbertson said should result in more efficiency, improve quality of care and customer service and position the department to leverage more federal Medicaid dollars.

It includes creating a new Office of Children's Service, headed by a deputy commissioner, that will replace the Division of Family and Youth Services. The office will encompass child protective services, adoption, the infant learning program and foster care, among other programs.

Mental health and substance abuse programs will be merged into a Division of Behavioral Health.

Child-care assistance will move from the Department of Education and Early Development to the Division of Public Assistance.

The Pioneers of Alaska - a group representing about 7,000 Alaska seniors who have lived in the state at least 30 years - opposes the management change as well as further modification of the bonus program, which already is being phased out, said Bob Hufman, who heads the group's government affairs committee.

"We feel that through the Department of Administration our voice is better heard," Hufman said. "I'm quite sure the governor's office and the legislators are going to hear from us."

The Legislature has 60 days to act on an executive order in order to reject it.

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