Safety net may not catch more seniors

Posted: Sunday, March 23, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- The state's safety nets for older Alaskans may not catch any more needy people if the longevity bonus program is eliminated.

That's because the state has never counted the $100-$250 monthly bonuses in deciding whether someone is eligible for many programs that help low-income seniors.

However, some older Alaskans who were eligible for public assistance but never asked for it may apply if they lose the longevity bonus, said Elmer Lindstrom, a special assistant in the Department of Health and Social Services.

''Intuitively, we would assume there would be some people in that category,'' Lindstrom said. ''But we are scratching our heads and puzzling over how in the world to figure out what the actual population might be.''

When Gov. Frank Murkowski proposed eliminating the monthly longevity bonuses that go to some senior citizens, he said the state had sufficient safety nets, such as adult public assistance, to protect needy Alaskans.

Adult public assistance is a program that provided cash to more than 4,700 low-income Alaskans over age 65 last year.

The Pioneers of Alaska -- a group representing about 7,000 seniors who have lived in the state at least 30 years -- opposes eliminating the longevity bonus.

Bob Hufman, who heads the group's government affairs committee, said he could not estimate how many elderly Alaskans will turn to public assistance for help without their bonuses.

''Some of the Pioneer seniors that I've talked with, you know, just can't stand the thought of going on welfare,'' Hufman said.

The longevity bonus program at one time provided all Alaskans over age 65 with a $250 monthly stipend, regardless of income. In the early 1990s the Legislature passed a law phasing out the program, so that only Alaskans who were at least 65 and living in the state in 1996 continue receiving checks.

Some 20,000 older Alaskans still receive some level of bonus, at a cost of $47.5 million a year.

In a letter accompanying the bill to eliminate the program, Murkowski said Alaska will continue to offer help to older Alaskans through other programs.

He noted seniors are eligible for free hunting and fishing licenses, property tax exemptions, nutrition programs such as meals-on-wheels and access to pioneers' homes, which are state-run assisted living facilities.

In his letter to the Legislature, the governor said low-income seniors also can receive adult public assistance, Medicaid, nursing home and home-based health care and senior training and employment services.

The governor's proposed fiscal 2004 budget does not include estimates on the added cost to the state if seniors turn to other state programs if longevity bonuses are eliminated, said Ross Soboleff, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Services.

Soboleff said the department is still trying to calculate that.

To be eligible for adult public assistance, a senior citizen must have income of less than $12,300 a year and can't have more than $2,000 in savings. Those on adult public assistance are also eligible for other programs, including Medicaid, which pays for prescription drugs.

Seniors with medical needs significant enough to qualify for nursing home care can receive Medicaid even if their income is close to $20,000 a year.

A hearing on the bill to eliminate the longevity bonuses is scheduled 3:30 p.m. Thursday in the Senate State Affairs Committee.

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