Budget cuts should spare the old and disabled

We must balance the state's budget. Continued political jostling does not serve Alaska and only prolongs the inevitable depletion of our reserves and perpetuates the current fiscal crisis. We expect and deserve better.

Fortunately, the state of Alaska is in a position with several options that can bring about a balanced and sustainable fiscal plan. Adopting a balanced fiscal approach, as the governor and the House caucus have recommended, spreads the responsibility across all groups, with a greater responsibility on those of us who can afford more while protecting those who cannot.

Not only do we have a moral imperative to "do the right thing" for our most vulnerable citizens — such as children, the poor, the homeless, the elderly and those with disabilities — failing to act now will result in greater costs to all Alaska. These results are quantified by higher rates of incarceration, substance abuse, failing health and institutional care, to name a few.

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More than 3,000 children, a record number, are in out-of-home placements in our child welfare system. Without appropriate intervention and treatment these children are at greater risk for poverty, homelessness, underemployment and unemployment, poor physical and mental health, a reliance on public services and incarceration. The homeless population in our state is one of the highest per capita in the nation, particularly in Anchorage. Our mayor has made addressing the situation a priority, and with a progressive housing-first model there have been positive outcomes in deterring the use of other more costly resources such as emergency departments, community patrols and police and fire calls.

The largest and fastest-growing demographic in the state is our senior population, people 60 years old and older. A quick glance back shows that in 2010 there were 90,876 seniors 60 and older, and in 2015 there were 120,444. It is projected that in 2022 there will be 161,712 people 60 years old and older. Investing in programs that support our seniors at home and in the community with wraparound services such as Meals on Wheels, in-home caregivers, senior centers, transportation assistance, etc. will help our seniors remain in Alaska, protect their quality of life and reduce costs to the state as they live independently in the community as long as possible.

People with disabilities make up a large percentage of our population. The 2012 Disability Status Report for Alaska by Cornell University reported that 10.9 percent of the population in Alaska experienced a disability. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibited discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life and private places open to the general public — including jobs, schools, transportation and housing — continued barriers prevent equal opportunity for all. These include physical barriers, a lack of accommodation, discriminatory laws and practices, but most significant are the barriers in attitude that prevent the full inclusion of people with disabilities in the community of their choice. The full inclusion of people with disabilities means an improved quality of life, greater independence and less dependence on institutional facilities. This requires an ongoing investment in home and community-based services that promote independent living. Maintaining current grant funding levels and Medicaid reimbursement rates is critical in meeting this need.

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As the Legislature considers the options for delivering a balanced budget, I call on our elected officials to do right by those who are the most vulnerable members of communities. I also hope that my fellow Alaskans will join me in this call, and that those of us who are able to afford more will gladly do so, knowing that we support those Alaskans who simply cannot. I also ask that the Legislature not impose cuts to our budget that will hurt Alaska's most vulnerable. Not only is it the fiscally responsible thing to do in the long term but it is also the "right thing to do" now.

Doug White is the executive director of Access Alaska. He is a licensed clinical social worker and has worked in the human services field in Alaska for over 30 years.

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