State tries to ease senior aid, but warns of fraud

Posted: Thursday, July 17, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) Elderly Alaskans on low incomes should find it easy to collect $120 a month through a new program.

The aid is intended to ease the pain of Gov. Frank Murkowski's elimination of the immensely popular Longevity Bonus Program.

For the new assistance, no interview and no documentation of income is required. The program will operate in part on trust. Alaska residents 65 or older must fill out a two-page application and say their income and assets are low enough to qualify.

''Keep it simple. Keep it dignified. Don't make it seem like welfare,'' were the guiding principles for the Alaska senior assistance program, said Angela Salerno, a program coordinator in the Division of Public Assistance.

People must provide their Social Security number on the application. If questions arise about possible fraud, the state could use that number to verify information, officials said.

Roughly 7,500 people are expected to qualify for the new help. An individual cannot have an income of more than $15,134 and liquid assets of $4,000. A couple cannot have more than $20,439 and assets of $6,000. Homes and cars do not count in the asset test, but stocks and bonds that can be easily turned to cash do.

''It's not a substitute for the Longevity Bonus Program,'' Salerno said. ''It's the last shred of the safety net for seniors.''

The Longevity Bonus Program had no income limit. It was being phased out even before Murkowski vetoed $44 million from the program this fiscal year. The last bonuses are expected to be paid in August. The new help starts in September.

The longevity program started in 1972 as a reward for longtime Alaskans to help them retire here. Court rulings opened it up to anyone who had lived in the state at least a year. Lawmakers in 1993 approved a phase-out.

About 18,000 people now receive bonus checks of $100 to $250 a month depending on when they qualified. But another 26,000 Alaskans 65 and older do not, an inequity cited by the governor when he vetoed the funding. The last to qualify had to turn 65 by Dec. 31, 1996.

As the governor announced the veto in June, he also proposed temporary help in the $120 monthly checks, but only for needy elderly Alaskans and only this budget year.

It would be up to the Legislature to extend that help, Salerno said. This year the state is paying for the program with $10 million in federal funds.

Democrats have been pushing for a special session to override the Republican governor's bonus veto.

House Speaker Pete Kott's office began polling House members on whether they want a special session after more than a quarter of the members sent in letters asking him to do so. Aide Judy Ohmer said she could not release results of the polling to date.

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