Eight seniors sue for reinstatement of Longevity Bonus

Posted: Friday, December 19, 2003

FAIRBANKS - Eight Alaskans are suing the state, contending it broke a promise to them by canceling the Longevity Bonus Program for elderly residents.

The lawsuit contends that state law entitles eligible seniors to the bonus - a monthly check for as much as $250 paid to residents 65 and older.

Gov. Frank Murkowski in June vetoed $44 million for the longevity checks, ending the program. The last checks were paid in August.

"We were supposed to get it forever," said one of the plaintiffs, Harold Starkel, 90, of Fairbanks. "It has affected me quite a bit."

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in Fairbanks Superior Court by former state Sen. Joe Josephson, a lawyer.

Murkowski spoke out against the lawsuit on Thursday, saying the state and the Legislature hold the power to change programs such as the Longevity Bonus.

"It was hardly an entitlement ... it was hardly equitable," Murkowski said.

Starkel, who came to Alaska in 1930 and worked as a road builder and gold miner, said he felt betrayed by the cancellation of the program.

He still works part time at a senior center and hasn't had to cut back on anything yet. But he and his wife, Pearline, 83, both lost their bonus checks, totaling $500.

Starkel particularly worries about how to cover medical bills of $300 a month. His wife has had a stroke and is legally blind, he said.

The Longevity Bonus Program began in 1972 to help pioneers 65 and older stay here after retirement and thank them for helping make Alaska a state in 1959. Only those who had lived here at least 25 years could qualify.

But after a court deemed the residency requirement unconstitutional, the Legislature opened it up to anyone over 65 who had lived here a year or longer.

That made the program bigger and more costly, and lawmakers in 1993 began phasing it out. This year, about 18,000 Alaskans were getting monthly checks of $100 to $250, depending on when they qualified, and no new people had been added as recipients since 1997.

Murkowski called for an end to the program, arguing that it was too expensive for the cash-strapped state and that it was unfair.

More than 20,000 Alaska seniors aren't eligible to receive the checks, and the program doesn't take into consideration whether elderly recipients need the money to exist, Murkowski has said.

"This lawsuit is going to get a little attention," Murkowski said, but it doesn't address the state's responsibility to needy seniors.

The state offered temporary payments of $120 a month to low-income seniors after the bonus checks were eliminated.

Murkowski also is proposing a temporary prescription drug assistance program for low-income elderly while the state waits for a Medicaid drug benefit plan to begin in 2006.

The lawsuit is a proposed class action for everyone who was eligible for longevity payments.

It contends that legislation providing for the checks remains on the books and serves as a "legal entitlement." It also contends that the senior citizen plaintiffs had relied on the promise they would get the checks as long as they lived.

Listed defendants are Murkowski, Commissioner of Administration Mike Miller and the state of Alaska.

Plaintiffs are Anchorage retiree Helen Simpson and Fairbanks residents Roger Anderson, Rose Anderson, Ruth Bohms, Jorgy Jorgenson, Niilo Koponen and the Starkels.

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