More than 4,700 Alaskans will be temporarily removed from public assistance, according to a Department of Health and Social Services email sent to the Legislature. 

In a Thursday morning email to the Legislature, the department's legislative liaison Anthony Newman wrote of the Senior Benefits Program:

“Individuals currently receiving $76 per month (approximately 4,731 individuals), will not receive benefits in May or June due to insufficient funding. At this time, we anticipate no reduction in benefits to those individuals receiving $175 and $250 per month (5,124 and 1,742 individuals. respectively).”

Department officials later said a growing caseload combined with insufficient funding caused the shortfall.

News came just a few hours before the House of Representatives was to debate House Bill 39, the state’s operating budget for the next fiscal year, starting July 1.

House Health and Social Services chair Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, posted thoughts on her Twitter account:

“This is unacceptable. DHSS could have requested a supplemental budget allocation or moved funds between appropriations. Instead they’re choosing to cut funds for some of the poorest seniors with no advanced notice. These funds are used for food, prescriptions and heating fuel,” she wrote.

The program issues monthly checks to low to moderate income residents ages 65 and older. The state uses a sliding scale paying either $76, $175 or $250 each month.

In a letter to DHSS Friday, 19 members of the House Majority, including Sponholz, expressed their disappointment in the decision and asked two questions of the department: Why didn’t DHSS request supplemental funds to avoid the shortfall, and why wasn’t a $20 million discretionary fund used to resolve the problem?

The program has a history of being divisive. In 2007, the Legislature did not give former Gov. Sarah Palin the enough money for the program, prompting a special session held outside the capital. It was a one-day session held in Anchorage to restore the funding.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has legislation to repeal the entire Senior Benefits Program, just a year after the Legislature extended it through 2024 last year under House Bill 236.

Dunleavy’s bill, HB 60, would save the state $25 million a year, starting July 1. The bill received a single hearing the in Community and Regional Affairs Committee last week. No committee member supported the bill; committee co-chair Harriett Drummond, who also signed Friday's letter, said she would not give the bill another hearing.

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