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Alaska Legislature

State officials: No progress yet on senior benefits funding shortfall

Speaking to members of the House Health and Social Services Committee Saturday, the director of the state Department of Health and Social Services was asked if employees had found a way to shift money to cover an estimated $800,000 gap in the state’s senior benefits program.

“They’re evaluating to see if there are funds available throughout the department to see if we can actually fill that. At this point in time, we don’t have a clear answer,” said the commissioner-designee, Adam Crum.

Without a solution, an estimated 4,731 Alaskans will miss their payments of $76 per month. The money is designated for seniors who earn between $1,300 and $2,275 per month. Seniors who earn more than that amount are not eligible for the senior benefits program; payments for poorer recipients are not affected.

“Those people need that money, and not giving it to them is not going to improve their situation,” said Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage on Saturday.

In an April 11 letter addressed to Crum, the leaders of the Senate’s majority and minority caucuses asked to pinpoint the source of the shortfall and what could be done to fix it.

The Legislature is in the middle of its annual budget process, and if the situation isn’t resolved, lawmakers risk running into the same issue next year.

Lawmakers are “trying to get a better grasp on the situation,” said Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, and chairman of the Senate Health and Social Services Committee. “We don’t want to create the same situation for next year.”

The coalition House majority and the governor’s office have issued dueling statements of blame, but a close reading of the situation shows both may be at fault.

Last year, lawmakers voted 35-1 in the House and 19-0 in the Senate to renew the senior benefits program through 2024. At the time, fully funding the program would have cost about $25 million per year, but lawmakers supplied only $20 million.

As Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a statement Saturday, lawmakers "knowingly underfunded it.”

That didn’t cause an interruption in benefit payments, however. In the text of the original senior benefits legislation, passed in 2007, there is a clause that states “the department (of Health and Social Services) may reduce or eliminate the cash benefit available to recipients” if funding runs short.

Knowing that, the department reduced the minimum payment from $125 per month to $76 per month, expecting there would be enough money to last the year.

Shawnda O’Brien, director of the state Division of Public Assistance, said Friday that the state processed a backlog of applicants, which led to more people entering the program than expected.

Matt Shuckerow, the governor’s press secretary, said Monday that the total was about 300 people.

O’Brien said Friday that the problem was first identified earlier this spring. That timing has led to additional questions from lawmakers.

The Dunleavy administration has not requested additional funding for senior benefits in a supplemental appropriations bill, and it does not appear to have used budget permission to move money between accounts and cover the gap.

The Legislature last year gave the Department of Health and Social Services permission to move up to $20 million between programs. Asked Friday, O’Brien said she was not aware of any unused money available to fill the gap.

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