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Alaska Legislature

State suspends thousands of senior benefits payments, citing lack of funding

JUNEAU — The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is suspending May and June payments to more than 4,700 of the Alaskans receiving money from the Senior Benefits Program.

The change was noted in a Thursday morning email to legislators by the department’s legislative liaison, Tony Newman. The action is separate from a proposal by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to eliminate the program.

“Individuals currently receiving $76 per month (approximately 4,731 individuals) will not receive benefits in May or June due to insufficient funding,” Newman wrote. “At this time we anticipate no reduction in benefits to those individuals receiving $175 and $250 per month (5,124 and 1,742 individuals, respectively).”

Alaska’s Senior Benefits Program pays cash each month to Alaskans 65 or older who “have low to moderate income,” according to the program’s official guidelines.

Payments are made on a sliding scale based on income. Seniors who earn less than $11,700 per year are eligible for payments of $250 per month. Seniors who earn between $11,700 and $15,600 are eligible for $175 per month. Seniors who earn between $15,600 and $27,300 per year can receive a payment of $76 per month.

This last class of beneficiaries is the one affected. Under program regulations, the smallest payments are dropped first if the program runs out of money.

Shawnda O’Brien, director of the state Division of Public Assistance, said the funding shortfall — about $800,000 — came about in part because the department has gotten better about reducing the backlog in applications.

With more people entering the program, actual need is surpassing projections made last year.

“Due to caseload sizes and other things that have happened with the program, there was not enough funding,” she said.

She said some of the people losing their payments may become eligible for increased assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly known as food stamps — offsetting the loss.

Senior Benefits Program payments to those beneficiaries will resume in July, the start of the new fiscal year.

Filling the $800,000 shortfall would require legislative action or a transfer of funds from another program, with the approval of the department commissioner and the director of the Office of Management and Budget. O’Brien pointed out that such a transfer would also require that other program to have $800,000 in unused funds, and she isn’t aware of any such amount currently available.

Benefits for that lowest tier of applicants have already been cut from the maximum allowed $125 per month. The Legislature voted to allocate only $20 million for the program last year; fully funding the program requires about $25 million, O’Brien said.

The Senior Benefits Program, which was established in 2007, had been set to expire last year, but lawmakers voted to extend it through 2024. Its fate is still in doubt; the governor has proposed its elimination, but an alternative budget proposed by the House of Representatives includes it.

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