Haines' Diana Kelm is one of 50 Upper Lynn Canal residents to get her senior benefits cut. (Jillian Rogers)

Haines’ Diana Kelm is one of 50 Upper Lynn Canal residents to get her senior benefits cut. (Jillian Rogers)

Thousands of Alaska seniors got a letter from the state last week informing them that their monthly benefits would be cut in half. Around 50 seniors in Haines rely on the monthly allowance that got chopped. The monthly reduction takes effect today.

Almost 12,000 Alaskans aged 65 or older receive the state money through the Senior Benefits Program. And almost half of those get the allotment that’s getting cut. There are three tiers of senior benefits. Those eligible, who fall in the highest income bracket, receive $125 monthly. That’s the portion that, as of March 1, is cut to $47. According to the Division of Public Assistance, 49 Haines seniors and one in Skagway will be directly affected.

Seventy-one-year-old Diana Kelm has lived in Haines for the better part of 20 years. She moved here after retiring from a State job in Juneau. Monday, sitting at her kitchen table, she pulled out the letter she got last week. Seniors were given just a week’s notice. Kelm says the cuts came as a total shock.

“That’s the first I heard,” She says. “Then they had the audacity to send me an application to reapply.”

The cuts are part of last year’s budget reductions. More cuts proposed last week in the House finance subcommitee suggested eliminating that top tier all together, leaving the program intact for seniors whose income falls at, or below, federal poverty guidelines. Those individual seniors who have an income of less than around $1,200 per month will continue to receive monthly benefits of $175 or $250.

Denise Daniello is the director of the Alaska Commission on Aging, a division of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. She says the decision to cut the third tier by more than half was the reasonable option for seniors living with the least amount of income.

“The payment reduction was confined to the highest income level in order to protect the most vulnerable who are at the lower income levels,” says Daniello. “We’re very, very concerned of course. And we’re advocating to restore some of those funds, at least. It’d be nice to have it all restored because it’s going to affect a lot of people.”

Daniello encourages concerned residents to call in this week during the House Finance Committee’s public testimony period.

“It’s an important program for seniors and seniors definitely use that money to cover basic life necessities.”

As for Kelm, she says she’s able to live comfortably on her retirement – she no longer has mortgage payments and does not own a car – but the cut to her benefit still stings.

“I’m not a person of a lot of wants. So, I cover my expenses and I have a little extra in case something happens. The $125 a month sometimes gave me a little bit of leeway for extras.”

She says she lives frugally, and she’s happy. And, she adds, extra money that she does manage to squirrel away often goes back into the community by way of donations to local nonprofits. Those contributions are the first things to go, Kelm says, because there’s simply not much else she can cut out.

On a recent afternoon, Josie Johnson was at the Haines Senior Center for lunch. She didn’t want to be recorded for this story, but she says, she uses a lot of her monthly benefit to drive into town from Klukwan for lunch at the center twice a week.

Johnson falls in the middle tier, so her monthly check is safe for now. But she says she fears it’s only a matter of time before it gets cut too. She says it’s a “wait-and -see” situation.

Senior Center manager Cindy Jackson says seniors at the center have been talking about the cuts a lot, and even those who are not affected are upset at the development. Jackson told KHNS that one couple even offered to donate money for rides to those who might have to cut out basic necessities.

Margaret Sebens is the independent living advocate and benefits specialist at Southeast Alaska Independent Living in Haines. She says she works with seniors every day who rely on the benefit for things like groceries and supplemental health insurance.

“I’d say all the senior citizens that we work with that qualify for the senior benefit (and) that money is already spoken for living expenses,” Sebens says. “It’s really going to impact some budgets out there.”

Sebens says most are on a limited income and budget down the nickel, so, for many, even 50 bucks is a harsh blow to the pocketbook.

Back out on Beach Road, Kelm says so many seniors volunteer and contribute to the community, and it’s disheartening when they’re overlooked.

“I think it’s denying the value that seniors have to their communities. We have people who are seniors who are very significant, contributing members. It’s not to turn them out to pasture. They don’t live in rocking chairs anymore.”

Over the last four years, the caseload for the Senior Benefits Program has increased by more than 1,000 seniors. Unless Alaska’s legislators vote to reauthorize funding, the Senior Benefits Program, which began in its current form in 2007, is set to expire in June, 2018.