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Local seniors, support organizations react to loss of monthly benefit program

(KTUU)
Published: Jul. 1, 2019 at 7:33 PM AKDT
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In recent years, July 1st would be like the beginning of any other month. This is when monthly senior benefit payments are deposited into the accounts of low-income seniors across the state; however, the start of the new fiscal year is signaling the end of Alaska's Senior Benefits Program.

Just last week, Governor Mike Dunleavy included funding for the payment program in his list of line-item vetoes.

Monday at Anchorage Senior Center, a group of benefit recipients sat around a table enjoying a few games of Canasta. The senior benefits program was a hot topic of discussion.

"It really feels like... 'We're done using you, you're retired... so you're expendable," said T. Diane Smith. She says the lack of benefits is not going to break her budget, but it will make things much more difficult on a month-to-month basis.

Becky Hendrickson has only been collecting the benefits for two years and while she thinks her monthly budget will remain intact, she is concerned for other seniors who rely on those funds.

"It's going to hurt a lot of people that have budgeted that into their living," she said, "A lot of people have gotten it for so many years that they expect it to be there every month."

Kathleen Watkins falls into that category. She faces mobility issues and lives on a fixed income. Watkins is hoping she can still pay for medical needs, her phone bill and her rent without the benefits.

"It helps me pay all my bills, buy groceries and buy quarters so I can do all my laundry," Watkins told KTUU. She's also on medication for diabetes and high blood pressure and has no network of relatives in Alaska to go to for support.

The ladies all voices frustration over the amount of time and attention that's gone into the debate over Alaska's PFD and the state's operating budget. The legislature is soon to head into a second special session, where it would take a three quarters majority vote to overturn the governor's decision to end the program Phyllis Dobert says that lawmakers dragging their feet has led to her and others losing their benefits with almost no notice.

"They keep dragging this on and on, she said. "During that time, these people are getting paid and in the meantime, they want to take money away from seniors. The longer they drag it on, the more they get paid ... and we end up with nothing."

The advocacy director for the Alaska chapter of AARP is Ken Helander. He told KTUU that his group is referring to this as an "age tax."

"That's exactly what it is," Helander says. "This group is being asked, unlike any other group of Alaskans, to give up 20 to 25 percent of their income."

Much like Alaska AARP, the Food Bank of Alaska is concerned about what this means for their elderly clients. Moira Pyhala has relationships with many of these seniors as the food bank's community engagement coordinator.

"We are almost at capacity for a lot of our programs that help seniors," she said, "It's the same for a lot of our partners."

The governor has called for the second special session to begin in Wasilla on July 8th. Many state legislators are planning to reconvene instead, in Juneau.

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