Alaska seniors fret about future of benefits program after checks delayed

JUNEAU -- The state of Alaska was slow -- by just a day or two -- in providing Senior Benefits checks to low-income residents in September, but that was enough to throw a scare into some seniors who count on the extra income.

"We really need that money," said 80-year-old Rita Thompson of Anchorage.

"This is my food money, and for the things I pay bills for around the house," she said.

Her check eventually came, but those who rely on the extra income provided by Senior Benefits may already be facing cuts this year, and there are hints that more cuts may be coming.

The state's Senior Benefits program is the new version of the state's old Longevity Bonus program. The Longevity Bonus was eliminated by Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski more than a decade ago, but resurrected by Gov. Sarah Palin in 2007, also a Republican, as a program aimed at helping the poorest seniors.

These days the Senior Benefits checks go to those over 65 making as much as $25,760 annually for an individual, or $34,860 for a married couple. To get the largest monthly benefit, $250, individuals can make no more than $11,040 per year, or $14,940 as a couple.

But with the state facing sharply declining oil revenue again, Republican-turned-independent Gov. Bill Walker this year proposed reining in the cost of Senior Benefits.

Fending off attempts by Democratic legislators to restore money for Senior Benefits, Republican legislative majorities supported Walker's cuts.

Walker proposed that the $250 payment for the poorest seniors not be changed, but sought reductions in the next two levels, reducing the $125 amount to $100, and the $175 amount to $140.

On the floor of the House of Representatives, Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, said that despite the growing deficit, Alaska was increasing spending on oil-tax credits while cutting Senior Benefits.

"Oil and gas tax credit funding is going up 12 percent, while we are cutting Senior Benefits 25 percent," he said.

But Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River, who supported the cuts, responded by saying the Senior Benefits program only provided extra income for recipients.

"This is not like they are paying their food and medications off of this," he said.

And the program only measures income, he said, meaning that seniors can have assets such as houses, cars, stocks and bonds.

"Not all seniors are destitute," Saddler said.

More cuts may come in future years as well. The Department of Health and Social Services, which manages the program, is adopting new regulations on how to make cuts, if it has to again.

The program was authorized until 2018, but that authorization is subject to appropriations each year.

"Given recent budget cuts, and our expectation that more are on the way, we needed to codify a method to make reductions if necessary," said Sarana Schell, spokeswoman for the department.

Public comment on the new regulations continues until Sept. 17.

Schell said the check-mailing delay this month was caused by a "system issue," and that checks should not have been delayed by more than a day or two. But recipients who are concerned about mail delays, especially those in rural areas where mail is more likely to be interrupted, should sign up for direct deposit, she said.

About 70 percent of seniors already get their Senior Benefits sent directly to their bank accounts, she said.

In late September, the 30 percent of the 11,544 Senior Benefits recipients who don't already use direct deposit will receive a letter from the department urging them to do so as part of an annual effort, Schell said.