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New program boosts benefits for seniors

Income-based plan expands payments to more residents

Posted: Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Starting Wednesday, many seniors who rely on state help to stretch limited budgets will get a boost in their income, while thousands more will get help for the first time.

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It's all the result of clashes in the last legislative session, in which the state's program for needy seniors nearly died. Instead it was resurrected and expanded in a special legislative session in June.

Gov. Sarah Palin on Saturday signed Senate Bill 4, creating the new Senior Benefits Program, replacing SeniorCare, which recently expired.

Payments under the Senior Benefits Program are tied to income level, with the top payment increasing from $120 a month to $250 a month.

About 245 Juneau seniors qualified for the SeniorCare program, out of 6,715 statewide. Changes in the income limits mean the new Senior Benefits Program will apply to 10,700 seniors statewide.

The projected cost of the new program is $19.4 million annually.

Because of the short time between the new program's approval and the checks being mailed, seniors eligible for the program initially will receive payments of $125, the new minimum, with a supplement later if needed, said Sherry Hill, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Social Services.

State Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, sponsor of Senate Bill 4, praised Palin and his fellow legislators for saving the program.

For more information

Contact Senior Benefits Office at (888) 352-4150 or online at www.seniorbenefits.alaska.gov.

"I am proud of how the Legislature and Gov. Palin made an extra effort to get this legislation passed and signed into law this summer," Olson said.

It nearly didn't happen.

The Republican leadership in the House of Representatives refused to approve the program unless Democrats also agreed to finally kill the state's Longevity Bonus Program.

The Longevity Bonus has been living for several years in legislative limbo, with opponents not having enough votes to kill it but proponents not having enough votes to fund the bonus, which has not been paid in a number of years.

By the end of the legislative session, however, it looked like the battle over the bonus was going to end the payments for needy seniors as well. On party line votes, Republicans beat back attempts by House Democrats led by Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, to get a floor vote on the senior benefits program in the closing days and hours of the session.

After the session, however, Palin weighed in on the side of seniors, and the House leadership's resolve weakened. They agreed to Palin's calls for a special session on the benefits, which was held June 26.

At that session, Democrats managed to not only keep the benefits alive, but also increase them.

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



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