My Turn: Resolving senior benefits

Posted: Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The status of state benefits for Alaska's seniors must be resolved. Both the original Longevity Bonus and the current SeniorCare program require new legislation to continue. SeniorCare will sunset June 30 unless reauthorized, and the Department of Law has determined that restarting the Longevity Bonus also requires new enrollment authority.

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As a result, the operating budget did not include either program and properly deferred funding to the fiscal note that would accompany a policy bill extending either of the programs. Restarting the Longevity Bonus was estimated to cost approximately $34 million, annually. The current SeniorCare program costs less than $10 million.

Reopening the Longevity Bonus would benefit approximately 13,000 persons over 65, regardless of financial need, who have previously participated in the program. No new enrollees would be permitted. Less than 3,000 of the beneficiaries would be low-income Alaskans who were participating in the SeniorCare program.

Legal counsel advises that reopening enrollment for the Longevity Bonus exposes the state to another lawsuit requiring benefits for all persons over 65, regardless of income, not just those previously enrolled. If a lawsuit prevailed, the cost would be in excess of $75 million per year and grow rapidly.

SeniorCare is a needs-based program providing cash assistance and prescription drug benefits. SeniorCare pays $120 per month to qualifying Alaskans with an annual income less than 135 percent of the federal poverty guideline. There are approximately 6,600 participants receiving cash assistance. Additionally, there are approximately 150 persons participating in the drug benefit.

As chairman of the House Budget Subcommittee for the Department of Health and Social Services, I introduced House Bill 198 creating a new Alaska Senior Benefits Program replacing both the Longevity Bonus and SeniorCare programs. The program makes cash assistance payments available to all low-income seniors. Monthly cash payments of $250, $175 or $125 will be made depending upon income level. Approximately 11,000 low-income seniors are expected to benefit.

We also need to remove the name "SeniorCare" from state programs as that name conflicts with a registered corporation, Senior Care of Alaska Inc.

The bill was a carefully crafted compromise among legislators and senior advocacy groups. The crux of the compromise was that the benefits, which are more generous than some legislators wanted, would be supported as long as the new program replaced both the Longevity and SeniorCare programs. This compromise was breached when a floor amendment passed and retained the Longevity Bonus program. Keeping commitments made in the compromise negotiations, bill was then taken back to the Rules Committee.

After the House compromise failed, the Senate passed a somewhat similar bill that had been following the House bill through the process, copying most of its provisions. The Senate bill, however, provided less generous benefits, kept the Longevity Bonus in statute and did not change the SeniorCare program name.

As the session drew to its conclusion, I continued negotiations with concerned House members, but was unsuccessful in reconstructing the failed compromise. On the last day of session, a motion was made to bring the Senate bill to the floor without a public hearing. All the House could have done was to concur without amendment. That limitation prevented needed changes and precipitated the failure of the motion for various reasons including:

• The SeniorCare name had not been removed from the program.

• The benefits to seniors were less than the Houseversion.

• The new program did not replace the Longevity Bonus, putting two expensive programs into law at the same time.

The regular session concluded on schedule and other critical matters, including the gas pipeline, budgets, school funding, revenue sharing and retirement system liabilities have been addressed for this year. It is now time for the Legislature to assemble for a short special session to resolve the three outstanding issues with the Alaska Senior Benefits Program and deliver this essential assistance to all of Alaska's low-income seniors.

• Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, is chairman of the House Special Committee on Ways and Means and a member of the House Finance Committee chairing the Budget Subcommittee for the Department of Health and Social Services.

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