KETCHIKAN - State Health and Social Services Commissioner Joel Gilbertson reassured Ketchikan residents that the Murkowski administration is not planning budget cuts for the elderly.
"There is no effort afoot to cut services to seniors," Gilbertson said.
Gilbertson also said that Gov. Frank Murkowski intends to work with the Legislature to find money to continue paying $120 a month to low-income senior citizens through the Alaska Senior Assistance Program.
Gilbertson and other department officials spent Monday touring facilities that serve the elderly. Gilbertson also spoke to the Ketchikan chapter of the AARP.
Murkowski in August ended longevity bonuses, which paid up to $250 per month to Alaskans who turned 65 before 1994. The program cost $45 million per year.
At the same time, Murkowski started the Alaska Senior Assistance Program. Under the assistance program, individuals may receive payments if they have an annual income of up to $15,134. Couples get the checks if they have a combined annual income of up to $20,439. Alaska Permanent Fund dividends are not counted as income under the law.
Retired Pioneer's Home director and former Ketchikan Mayor Alaire Stanton asked Gilbertson to describe his department's overall philosophy.
"We have to be out there every day promoting access to care. The department promotes independent living at the highest level possible," Gilbertson said.
The department, the largest in state government with a $1.6 billion budget and 3,500 employees, has financial problems but is not allowed to reduce entitlement services, said Steve Ashman, director of the Division of Senior and Disability Services.
"We never have enough money to do everything we'd like to do," Gilbertson said. And the cost of serving people with needs, including the elderly, is increasing dramatically, he said.
Medicaid, which cost $500 million in 1999, is approaching a $1 billion price tag this year, Gilbertson said. It cost the department $72 million more this year to do the same things it did last year, he said.
A $64 million cost increase is expected next year.
Stanton asked whether Gilbertson intended to reduce support to advisory boards. The commissioner said he would cut funding to boards before he would reduce money to a sick child or an elderly person.
The department has been merging divisions to save money and might have to merge advisory boards, he said.