Guidelines revealed for new payments to low-income seniors

Posted: Sunday, June 29, 2003

The state announced income guidelines last week for a new program to provide $120 monthly payments for low-income older Alaskans who will lose longevity bonuses in September.

Senior advocates said the program will help some needy senior citizens, but they fear that others will fall through the cracks.

"As my mother used to say, it's better than a sharp stick in the eye," said Pat Luby, legislative representative for AARP in Alaska. "It's still going to be a mess for many of our oldest citizens."

Senior citizens living alone can qualify for the new program if they make no more than $15,134 a year. Couples can make up to $20,439.

There also will be limits on the amount of assets - such as savings accounts, stocks and bonds - people can own to qualify. A single person can have $4,000 in assets, while a couple can have $6,000.

Cars, homes, other real estate and Alaska Permanent Fund dividends won't count toward the income and asset limits, but Native corporation dividends will count. Income from real estate also will count.

Gov. Frank Murkowski announced earlier this month that the state would set up the new program using $10 million in federal funding provided by the recently passed federal tax cut bill.

He made that announcement on the same day he said he was vetoing $44 million in state funding for the longevity bonus program.

That's a program dating from the 1970s that provides checks of up to $250 a month to eligible senior citizens, regardless of their income. It is being phased out so only seniors who were 65 and living in Alaska at the end of 1996 receive the bonuses. The new program will be open to all senior citizens.

"The new program treats all Alaskans over 65 equally and fairly," Health and Social Services Commissioner Joel Gilbertson said in a news release. "All seniors, whether they received the longevity bonus or not, can apply for the program."

The payments in the new program will start in September when the longevity bonus checks stop. They will end in July of next year when the federal money that's paying for them runs out.

Angela Salerno of the Department of Health and Social Services said she expects about 7,500 older Alaskans will qualify for the new program. That compares to about 18,000 who receive longevity bonuses.

Marie Darlin, a volunteer lobbyist for AARP in Juneau, said the program will help, but some senior citizens whose income is too high to qualify will still have a difficult time because of high prescription costs and other bills.

"We feel that there are some people who still could use the help and aren't going to get it," Darlin said.

Because the department does not have time to go through the normal process for adopting regulations before starting the program in September, initially it will be run under emergency regulations.

The department intends to hold hearings on the regulations, probably the week of July 14, Salerno said. Times and locations will be announced later.

Minority Democrats in the Legislature have asked the Republican legislative leadership to call a special session to override Murkowski's veto of the longevity bonus program funding.

But House Speaker Pete Kott, an Eagle River Republican, said he does not believe there is support to do that. It takes a two-thirds vote for the Legislature to call itself into special session and a three-quarters vote to override a veto.

Bob Hufman of the Pioneers of Alaska said he has no hope of a veto-override session.

"We've pretty much accepted the fact that it isn't going to happen, not with this administration," Hufman said. "I don't think it's got even a slim chance, not the way the Legislature's stacked up."

Murkowski vetoed $138 million from the state budget, including the longevity bonus funding, saying the state could not continue to draw the level of funding it has been from its budget reserve account.

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