KODIAK — About 800 Kodiak senior citizens awaited their monthly stipend on July 1, available through the Alaska Senior Benefits Payment Program. But, the check never came.
Under the Fiscal Year 2020 budget signed by Governor Mike Dunleavy, the program was discontinued and payments are no longer being made.
“People have been depending on this for a number of years,” said Lauri Murdock, executive assistant at Senior Citizens of Kodiak. “Having the $3,000 [Permanent Fund Dividend payment] is not making up for what people are losing right now.”
Pat Branson, City of Kodiak mayor and executive director of Senior Citizens of Kodiak, said the funding cut will have a devastating effect on the lives of Kodiak senior citizens who relied on the monthly stipend to pay for food and prescription medications, among other expenses.
According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Division of Public Assistance, the payment program provided cash benefits to Alaskans who are age 65 or older and have low to moderate income. There were three payment tiers, ranging from $75 per month for those making less than $26,000 annually to $250 per month for those making less than $11,000 annually. About 11,000 Alaskans were part of the program.
“It might not seem like a lot of money to most people, but it is to these people,” Branson said, adding that some seniors may be unable to pay for doctor’s appointments, or may face the decision between purchasing food or medicine.
Branson added that she expects to see an increased reliance on Kodiak’s food bank.
The island’s largest food bank, run by the Kodiak Baptist Mission, is expected to close in the coming months and be replaced by an expanded food bank operated by the Kodiak chapter of the Salvation Army. Branson said that this transition period for the food bank may add challenges to seniors struggling to put food on the table.
Murdock noted that a dozen Kodiak residents have sought assistance at the Kodiak Senior Center since July 1.
“Mostly they’re confused,” Murdock said. “They’re trying to figure out why their check didn’t show up.”
Branson added that many of the senior citizens that relied on these monthly payments work at canneries and other low-paying jobs.
“It’s not only confusing, but it’s devastating,” she said. “What are you going to do? Be 75 years old and pick up a few more hours at the cannery?
“People are upset. That certainly has a play on their mental and physical health. Worrying is not a good thing to do, especially when you can’t do anything about it.”
However, Branson encourages Kodiak’s senior citizens to become advocates for their needs. The center’s board has sent a letter to all state legislators, urging them to override the governor’s veto.
Lawmakers had five days after the start of the special session Monday to consider veto overrides. The midnight Friday deadline came and passed without three-quarters majority needed to overturn line-item budget vetoes coming together.
Branson added that the center’s staff has been in touch with the staff of similar agencies across Alaska, which have similar concerns. According to Branson, collaborating on these issues will be key in mitigating the fallout from the budget cuts in the coming months.
The Senior Benefits Payment Program is not the only loss that may affect the lives of Kodiak seniors in the coming months.
According to Branson, all Medicaid providers are facing a five percent budget cut following the governor’s veto. Some Kodiak seniors rely on the Alaskans Living Independently Medicaid Waiver, which funds daycare, meals and rides.
“It keeps people out of assisted living and helps them remain at home,” Branson said.
Branson pointed out that these services allow some Kodiak seniors to live independently, and that the alternatives — retirement homes and long-term assisted care — are far more expensive.
The governor’s vetoes of more than $400 million also cuts Medicaid dental services.
“Oral health is most important — it affects your whole body,” Branson said. “We are going to be hearing about that in the next couple of months, big time.”
Branson assured that Senior Citizens of Kodiak will continue to meet the needs of those on the Medicaid waiver program, but added that doing so may require dipping into the center’s savings.
“With providers being cut five percent, we need to look for other money to supplement grant funds and medicaid waiver funds,” Branson said. “We are a very lean and efficient operation here.”
Branson said that because of the delay in passing the state operating budget, Medicaid and state grant payments have also been delayed. Staffers are unsure when these payments will be made. Grants make up a third of the center’s operating budget, Branson said.
One such grant is the Nutrition, Transportation and Support Services Grant provided by the DHSS Senior and Disabilities Services, which enables the Kodiak Senior Center to collaborate with the Kodiak Area Native Association to provide meals to those who need them in remote villages. Without such grants, some of the center’s program may be in danger.
Branson and her colleagues will be meeting with Amy Burge, grant administrator of DHSS, and Sana Efird, assistant commission of DHSS, to discuss the future of these payments and budget cut impacts today.
“It’s not just our agency,” Branson said. “Lots of agencies are going to be on the line. It’s going to have major repercussions.”
Branson added that Governor Dunleavy has proposed to cut another $50 million from the Department of Health and Social Services, but officials don’t know how these cuts will fit into the department’s budget.
“My analysis of these budget cuts is that people have gone in and made these cuts based on a net number, without analyzing or doing any kind of research,” Branson said. “You should take a look at the effects on the individual. In my opinion, none of that has been done, across the board.
“The checks won’t come in until something is done. Something needs to happen, because seniors vote, and everybody knows that.”