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Alaska Legislature

Alaska lawmakers vote to cap Pioneer Home rates, sending bill to Gov. Dunleavy

The Pioneer Home in Sitka, Jan 10, 2020. (Anne Raup / ADN)

JUNEAU — Responding to older Alaskans distressed by a surge in the cost to stay at Alaska’s state-owned, elder-care homes, the Legislature voted Tuesday to cap rates and allow only limited price increases in the future.

House Bill 96, written by Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, will advance to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s desk after being approved unanimously by the state House and Senate.

“It’s inspiring to see Alaskans from all across the state and all walks of life to pull together and show their support for this institution,” Fields said.

Multiple legislators said they believe the governor will sign the bill. Suzanne Cunningham, the governor’s director of legislative affairs, said the governor’s office is beginning its financial and legal review of that and other bills, and coronavirus-specific legislation will be prioritized.

Last year, the Dunleavy administration sharply increased rates in an attempt to cover more of the true cost of care at the homes. The cost of the lowest level of service, which includes housing, food, social events and emergency help, rose from $2,588 per month to $3,623 per month. The highest level of service, which also includes 24-hour comprehensive care, rose from $6,795 per month to $15,000 per month.

The new legislation imposes caps based on the old rates. The cost of the lowest level of care would be $2,976 per month, plus fees. The cost of the highest level would be set on a case-by-case basis, according to the text of the proposed law.

Those caps would be allowed to increase by the rate of inflation as calculated by the Social Security Administration.

The bill also opens Pioneer Homes to more Alaskans. Current law states that an Alaskan must be 65 or older to enter the home. That would be lowered to age 60.

Last year, the state expanded its payment assistance program to help Pioneer Home residents pay for the cost of their housing and care. Some of those residents said they were forced to give up so much of their assets and income to become eligible that it wasn’t practical. The bill allows residents to keep more income while staying eligible for payment assistance.

The state has been sued over the rate increase. That case is still progressing through the legal system. Elizabeth Bakalar, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said Tuesday that they were still evaluating the situation.

“We look forward to Gov. Dunleavy signing HB 96,” she said. “We will evaluate and consider our litigation posture after it’s signed.”